New campaign aims to reduce non-recyclables in Washtenaw County's recycling bins

Ever find yourself wondering if that plastic take-out container is, in fact, recyclable? Over the coming weeks, residents in Ann Arbor Township, Dexter, Saline, Scio Township, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township will be getting feedback about un-recyclable materials (known as "contaminants") they may have unwittingly put in their recycling bins. The Washtenaw Regional Resource Management Authority (WRRMA) has partnered with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership to launch Feet on the Street, an educational campaign that aims to reduce the amount of contaminants in the residential recycling stream. 

An initial audit conducted by WRRMA revealed a 19.5% contamination rate. One resident had tried to recycle an oil filter. That alone could spoil the rest of their recyclables, as well as any others it came into contact with once hauled away.

“If you think of it by volume, two out of every 10 things that go in the [recycling] bin are not actually recyclable,” says Theo Eggermont, public works director for the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office and WRRMA manager. 

Common contaminants include greasy pizza boxes, shrink wrap, plastic packaging, zip-lock bags, waxed paper, and plastic-lined cups, not to mention containers that still have traces of food on them. These items slow down the sorting process in recycling facilities, drive up costs, and prevent materials from getting to end markets where they can be turned into new products. 

Over four collection cycles, the Feet on the Street team will evaluate the contents of household recycling bins. If a bin contains a contaminant, the resident receives an orange warning tag with information on the error, and how to avoid repeating their mistake. This warning is recorded in an app. A repeat offense earns a red tag and a note stating that the resident’s recycling won’t be collected until they have removed the non-recyclable material. 

In addition to a recycling explainer that was mailed to residents before the campaign kicked off, those who are unsure if an item is recyclable can reference the Waste Wizard, a search function on WRRMA’s website

Over the last five years, The Recycling Partnership has implemented Feet on the Street programs in over 80 communities across the country. 

“We typically see about a 40% reduction in contamination,” says Cassandra Ford, the partnership’s community program coordinator. “We’re excited to see the final numbers for Washtenaw, which we should have right before Labor Day.”

“We know our residents want to recycle the right way,” Eggermont says. “Through this campaign, we are  providing them customized, immediate feedback to do just that.” 

Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.

Photo courtesy of EGLE.
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