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. In short, it worked. Instances of tagging dropped dramatically over the course of the program, while resident participation in recycling remained steady.

“The okay offenders became good recyclers, the bad offenders became okay, and the awful ones remained awful,” noted Tina Douk, the City of Lowell’s recycling enforcement officer. “The key was feet on the street – talking to residents and using Oops and Thank You Tags to give them feedback every collection cycle.”

From April through July City staff worked hand-in-hand with The Recycling Partnership and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) to retrain residents on two collection routes through traditional outreach coupled with direct feedback at the curb. Similar efforts were ongoing in three other Massachusetts communities – Holden, Needham, and West Springfield – to test and refine the quality improvement program for use across the state, and ultimately across the country.

Among the tactics used were direct mail postcards, posters at the local grocery store, a-frame signs on street corners within the route, updated website imagery, and regular feedback at the curb. Arguably the most powerful tool was Tina Douk. She speaks fluent Khmer, the language native to Cambodia, which allowed her to connect with the many Cambodian residents on the pilot routes. Couple that with her even demeanor and dedication to the task at hand, and Tina became a contamination-busting machine.

“A community has to ask itself ‘how important is it to clean up our stream?’,” advised Tina. “It has to be a priority or it’s not going to work.”

Before the pilot program, communication between the City and its hauler (Waste Management) was lacking. Both were doing some limited tagging of contaminated recycling carts, but neither was aware of the other’s actions. This absence of consistency proved ineffective at curbing contamination, but through the pilot program communication improved. City staff tagged carts, and Waste Management left those carts full at the curb to drive the message home to residents.

As Doug Surprenant, Residential Route Manager for Waste Management pointed out, “Boots on the ground is what made the difference.” The fact that this echoes Tina’s sentiments speaks volumes.

In the coming months the City of Lowell plans to roll-out this approach across all routes, spot checking in the areas with better quality and diving deeper where needed. Meanwhile, MassDEP and The Recycling Partnership will package the quality improvement program for broader use and share the tools and findings far and wide. This will include a host of open source resources posted to www.tools.recyclingpartnership.org this month.