What’s in your bin? Bay City kicks off project to teach people what belongs in recycling bins

At the beginning of 2023, Bay City phased out green recycling bins and rolled out 96-gallon carts, giving residents five times as much capacity to toss recyclables.

Now, the city is launching a program to teach residents what can – and cannot – go in those bins.

The city received $59,144 from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) along with technical support from The Recycling Partnership (TRP) create the the local program.

Over the next six months, a Canadian company, Prairie Robotics, will use high-tech camera equipment and global positioning systems to determine what each household is putting into the bins. The city will use that information to try to teach better recycling habits in the community.

The local program is part of EGLE’s national award-winning “Know It Before You Throw It” campaign, aimed at increasing the state’s recycling rate from the current 21% to 30% by 2025.

In this project, instead of a person reviewing contents and placing a tag on curbside recycling carts, Prairie Robotics added camera technology to the city’s recycling trucks. Next, Artificial Intelligence technology will scan the material from each recycling cart as it is dumped into the truck.

Graphic courtesy of Bay City RecyclesThe system recognizes unacceptable items such as plastic bags, polystyrene foam, yard waste, and trash. Such items are flagged in real-time, allowing for a personalized postcard or digital notification to be sent to a resident with information about how they can recycle better.

Graphic courtesy of Bay City RecyclesBay City Environmental Services Manager James Blake stresses the program isn’t punitive. Instead, the program strives to give residents information about what does and does belong in the recycling bins.

“The big misconception is that somehow the city is going to fine you for having the wrong things in your recycling. That’s not what we’re doing at all,” Blake says. “It’s more or less an education program. It’s to inform residents.”

Blake says he understands why people are confused about what to put into the bins. Recycling has become more intricate. It’s not always easy to know what is recyclable at curbside.

For example, many people toss plastic grocery bags, electrical cords, used pizza boxes, or Christmas lights into the recycling bins. Some of those items are recyclable, but not through the curbside program, he explains. Light strings tangle up in the machinery and can cause injuries to workers at the center. Cardboard can be recycled, but the grease and food stuck inside a pizza box gums up the machinery.

In Bay City, the top contaminants are plastic bags and polystyrene foam.

Graphic courtesy of Bay City RecyclesThat doesn’t mean these types of items belong in the landfill. It just means they’re not meant for curbside pickup.

Instead, Blake says people need to deliver items such as electrical cords, holiday lights, polystyrene foam, or certain plastics to the Bay City Recycles Drop-Off Center, 2900 N. Water St.

The drop-off service is free, but by appointment only, he adds. The city accepts other items, such as paint or hazardous waste, during special collections held a couple times a year.

“We’re really trying to get people to the recycling center, because basically anything that’s not taken curbside, almost anything, can be brought to the transfer station or the recycling center,” he adds.

Blake says improving the community’s recycling skills should reduce costs. Blake hopes the education program leads to workers spending less time sorting through materials before they are processed.

“We want to reduce costs by having less contamination,” he says. “That’s one benefit of knowing how to recycle better.”

By cutting down on the number of contaminants, Bay City hopes to decrease damage to equipment while increasing amount of materials recycled and re-used.

If you have questions about what should and shouldn’t be put out curbside, the city has guidelines on its websiteYou also can read more about the recycling program on Facebook.

Brochures and literature about the program are available on the first and fourth floors of City Hall, 301 Washington Ave.

To check on recycling programs in other municipalities in Bay County and for information on the recycling center, visit the Bay County website.
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Read more articles by Denyse Shannon.

As a feature writer and freelance journalist, Denyse Shannon has written professionally for over two and a half decades. She has worked as a contractor for daily and weekly newspapers, national and local magazines, and taught introductory media writing at her alma mater – Central Michigan University. She also holds a Master of Arts in journalism from Michigan State University. She and her husband live in Bangor Township and enjoy sailing on the Bay, and are avid cyclists.