Contamination levels creeping up in your recycling stream?

Increase Quality

6 STEPS TO FIGHT CONTAMINATION

1. Before you do anything, a MRF meeting is a must.

You may think you know the biggest contaminate, but chances are your MRF might have a different list of bad actors. Set up a meeting and hit on these three topics:

  • First, use this survey to easily guide your discussion and narrow out the five main materials causing problems.
  • This is also a good time to check in and make sure they’re accepting the same things your outreach materials call for.
  • Finally, ask them to assess your contamination rate as specifically as possible, now and regularly in the future. Details matter! Set a baseline contamination rate so you can measure against it later. Remember you want to be able to track progress!
2. Name your top issue.

Fighting contamination can feel like a big job, but not if you break it into simple steps per material.

  • You now know the 5 biggest problems. Focus on only those using the communication tools, such as the oops tags, download here.
  • But be ready to dig on the baddest of the bad actors. Based on the MRF’s feedback, pinpoint and target the single misplaced material that is causing the most problems. In the months to come, can you identify the source of this material? Is there a specific neighborhood or business that may be the problem?
3. Rally the troops.

Here’s the golden nugget: consumer education alone will not solve your contamination problem. To see real change, you must engage operations after you have clearly communicated that yes/no list you developed during Step 2. Remember: boots on the ground are key to fighting contamination.

Curbside programs, do this:

  • First, you’ll need staff to tip cart lids or peer in bins and tag for the top five materials causing problems for your MRF. Look to existing staff first, and work with your hauler. Figure 3-4 hours for a standard 1,000 household curbside route.
  • Be prepared to use “oops tags” or reject carts. Here are some simple operating procedures to help guide your team, easy to-follow-steps that successful programs are taking across the country. Here’s a link to the artwork for that oops tag.
  • Yes, we know it’s different to slow down, look in, and assess. But the cost today can result in savings to come.

Drop-off programs, do this:

  • First, you’ll need to find some troops. Look to existing on-site staff first, then to volunteers, and finally to temps. The ideal candidates will be helpful, friendly, likable and chatty. Teach them the basics of your program – what is and is not accepted, where it goes, what it is recycling into. Above all, give them a simple talking point about your top issue material, and have them share that message with everyone who visits the site.
  • For example, “Hi. I see you have some clothing you’re trying to recycle. We don’t accept that here because it causes problems and safety issues in the recycling process, but you can donate it down the street. Thanks for recycling!”
  • Why do you need humans instead of just posters? You’re trying to change behavior. Without that personal touch, your citizens are unlikely to recognize that they change you’re asking for applies to them. Case study in point: Lowell, MA.
4. Make a communication plan.

Finally – the fun part you’ve been waiting for. Communicating with the public, eye candy included. Once you have your operations in order during Step 3 above, now it’s time to reinforce the message.

Curbside programs, do this:

  • Annual info card mailer. Print this on heavy cardstock and send it to every household you service to give them an easy reference guide to your basic YES and NO lists. (Extra credit: order it as a magnet so it’s always front and center in the kitchen – the place most household recycling happens.)
  • Curbside Feedback. Direct feedback to residents is extremely powerful. Update these Oops Tags with the top materials that are causing your MRF problems, and print enough for every household you service. (Extra credit: order Thank You Tags as well, to provide positive feedback for those doing it right.) See #3 below for how to use these tags.
  • Top issue mailer. In step 2 you named your top issue. One month after the Annual info card mailer goes out, send this postcard to every household on your route to double-down on this key message.
  • Top issue signage. Post some signage in the community to reinforce the message from the top issue mailer. A-frames, billboards, bus ads, posters at local stores, and social media posts all work well.

Click here to download artwork.

And to further improve your program do this as well:

  • General promotions. Build a culture of local recyclers by using 2 of these every year, posted for 2 to 3 months at a time.
  • Website. Update your website with current materials, and make it as searchable as possible. If that’s a stretch, upload an image of your basic YES and NO lists.

Drop-off programs, do this:

  • Assess and update signage. Look at your sites with fresh eyes. Is your signage clear and concise, or overly detailed and too numerous? Help residents understand what to do by stating it simply.
  • Annual info card mailer. Print this on heavy cardstock and send it to every household you service to give them an easy reference guide to your basic YES and NO lists. (Extra credit: order it as a magnet so it’s always front and center in the kitchen – the place most household recycling happens.)
  • In-person feedback. Direct feedback to residents is extremely powerful. Print a stack of these handouts – basically your info cards – to start the conversation, and get staff or volunteers to engage residents. Focus on your top issue. See #4 below for tips.
  • Top issue signage. Post eye-catching temporary signage at your sites to reinforce the message about your top issue. A-frames work well for this.

Click here to download artwork.

And to further improve your program do this as well:

  • General promotions. Build a culture of local recyclers by using 2 of these every year, posted for 2 to 3 months at a time.
  • Website. Update your website with current materials, and make it as searchable as possible. If that’s a stretch, upload an image of your basic YES and NO lists.
5. Launch the campaign.

Once you’ve got your ducks in a row, it’s time to go. Keep it up for at least three months, then repeat in smaller doses as needed. Send us photos of your good work, or tweet them us @RecycPartnership. We want to help you keep up the good work.

6. Measure, measure, measure.

You’re almost there – but there’s one more essential program. Data. Track progress with these basic metrics:

  • Contamination rate: Work with your MRF to get this on a regular basis. Ideally they can also identify the most prevalent items.
  • Curbside tagging rate: Record the number of Oops Tags you leave on each route from week to week. Compare progress on different routes by first dividing the number of tags by the number of recycling containers set out each week.
  • Curbside set out rate: Track participation against your other efforts. Collect set-out rates – the number of households actually setting out recycling on a collection day divided by the total number of households on that route –every day on every route. Just arm drivers with clickers or tally counters and you’ve got it.
  • EXTRA CREDIT – Recovery rate study: How much garbage is in your recycling? How much recycling is in your garbage? Grab 50 garbage and recycling containers at random, sort and weigh everything, and do the math. Or hire a specialized firm to do it. Either way, this will be your best measure of quality, progress, and opportunities for improvement.

Feet on the Street in Lowell, MA

Like many communities across America, the City of Lowell, Massachusetts, has been concerned with rising contamination rates in its recycling stream. Earlier this year the City launched a pilot program to address the problem
LEARN MORE

Downloads

Use these to reduce contamination.

info card
Magnet
Magnet

 

Oops Tag
thank you tag

How are you fighting contamination?

Let us know by posting on Instagram #MoreBetterRecycling