A few weeks ago, the city of Columbus, in cooperation with SWACO, the Recycling Partnership and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, launched a program called “Feet on the Street.”

Throughout the next few months, inspectors will be walking neighborhoods, looking at the contents of residential recycling containers. If they find any contaminants, they’ll leave a tag identifying what the contaminants are and reminding the resident to recycle only accepted materials.

Feet on the Street, which is described in an article in the Aug. 8 edition of ThisWeek Community News (“Recycling-bin audits help Columbus residents do it right”), might seem a little intrusive, but it’s necessary to help educate residents about the right way to recycle.

Before launching this program with its partners, SWACO surveyed Franklin County residents and learned that most (94%) believe local government should lead the way for recycling, but nearly half (49%) are confused about how to recycle properly. This helps explain why too many contaminants end up in our recycling stream.

Contamination refers to items placed in recycling containers that cannot be recycled in the curbside program, such as plastic bags, wire hangers and paper towels. It also describes items that usually can be recycled but aren’t prepared the right way, like recyclables that are placed in plastic trash bags and cardboard boxes that haven’t been flattened.

Recycling contamination is a problem because nonrecyclable materials can clog or damage sorting machinery, causing expensive repairs and delays. In addition, items that are not accepted must be picked out and then landfilled, creating additional expense. Worse yet, contamination reduces the quality of recyclable materials, which then decreases their market value.

The contamination rate steadily has been climbing the past several years. The average rate in the U.S. is about 25%. Locally, our rate is a little better, but at 20%, it’s still too high.

The high rate of contamination is one of the reasons behind China’s decision to stop accepting recyclable materials from the U.S.

China was our country’s biggest foreign buyer of recyclables, but as of Jan. 1, China began enforcing its new National Sword policy, which bans 24 types of solid waste and sets a much tougher standard for contamination levels, which are nearly impossible for most communities to achieve.

Fortunately, more than 98% of the material recycled in central Ohio is used in domestic markets, many of which are in Ohio. To help keep these markets strong, we need to continue to improve the quality of our recycling.

That’s why SWACO has invested heavily into public-education campaigns.

In addition to Feet on the Street, we introduced our Recycle Right campaign last year and continue to roll it out in communities throughout Franklin County.

The campaign features direct mailers, refrigerator magnets and light-hearted TV ads in which the announcer tells surprised residents, “SWACO and your local community are making recycling as easy as possible. If we made it any easier, we’d be in your house.”

We also have a Recycle & Reuse Search Tool, described in my July column in ThisWeek, to help residents figure out what to do with regular household items they no longer want or need.

All these efforts are aimed at increasing proper recycling participation and reducing confusion and contamination.

Columbus is the only city in central Ohio with a Feet on the Street program.

So if you live in a Columbus neighborhood and see someone inspecting your recycling, don’t be worried. It’s just one way in which we’re trying to help central Ohio residents become better recyclers.

Regardless of where you live, however, always double check what you’re putting into your bin.

With everyone’s help, we can reduce contamination and, in turn, increase the amount of material that’s recycled and that supports our economy instead of sent to the landfill.

Ty Marsh is executive director of SWACO. Questions about its operations can be directed to him at questions@swaco.org. His office provides this column to ThisWeek Community News.