Columbus is recycling better of late, thanks in no small part to this summer’s Feet on the Street recycling education campaign, city officials say.
Tim Swauger, administrator for Columbus’ division of refuse collection, which conducted the program with cooperation with the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, said the result is a cleaner waste stream that improves recycling efforts and will help keep down the cost of the city’s curbside recycling program.
Feet on the Street was funded through a $40,000 grant from the Recycling Partnership and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency as part of a statewide initiative to address recycling-stream contamination.
The city contracted with a company called Good Land to physically assess the content of residents’ recycling bins at the curbs and, when needed, leave a card attached with feedback on items that are not approved for curbside recycling.
The eight-week program reached 20,000 homes in the city, including parts of Clintonville, Northland and northwest Columbus.
“The intent of the education was to change behavior,” Swauger said. “We’ve seen, in particular, a 60% decline in plastic bags, either directly in the bins or recycling placed in plastic bags. That’s our No. 1 contaminant.”
According to a press release from the city, 39% of households whose containers were tagged improved their recycling habits dramatically.
Work remains to be done in analyzing the data collected, Swauger said, but initial assessments show the program made an impact.
“When (residents) received a correction (note), they made the correction and put their can back out rather than give up,” he said. “It shows that we’ve got willing residents who want to do the right thing and recycle the right way.”
Good Land president Mike Minnix said as he and others spent time in neighborhoods combing through recycling bins, they often were engaged directly by residents.
“The reaction was overwhelmingly positive,” Minnix said. “Once they learned our routine and knew we we’d be back, we had many who would come out and ask us how they had done. The majority were just curious, but some looked at it like a test.
“We definitely saw improvement week to week,” he said.
Swauger said Feet on the Street was the first coordinated education effort since the city started its fee-free curbside recycling seven years ago. The program has about a 75% participation rate, but, Swauger said, people often are overzealous in their desire to recycle.
The automated collection trucks used by Rumpke Waste & Recycling, the city’s contracted refuse collection provider, can’t screen what’s in the bins, Swauger said.
Many ostensibly recyclable items – such as plastic tubs and cups, takeout containers, egg cartons and metal coat hangers – are not accepted by SWACO.
“Reducing unapproved items means less contamination of other recycled materials, which also helps control costs as the materials are processed at the plant,” Swauger said. “It keeps the (curbside recycling) program sustainable.”
The city is in the middle of a five-year contract with Rumpke Waste & Recycling for curbside recycling, but when the contract goes out for bidding next time, efforts to reduce cost will help keep bids low, Swauger said.
Many items not approved for curbside recycling are recyclable by other means, Swauger said. He said residents can go to the city’s website or swaco.org to find more information about how to properly recycle materials not accepted for curbside collection.
Feet on the Street is a national initiative to help improve the recycling stream. Jill Martin, director of community programs for the Recycling Partnership, credited Ohio as a leader in the effort to improve recycling programs.
“The Ohio EPA has stepped up to devote funds to the effort to keep the recycling system strong,” Martin said.
Nationwide, Feet on the Street is working, Martin said.
“We just wrapped up a number of communities across the country,” she said. “We’re showing a 40% reduction in contamination levels via a physical sorting of materials. There’s some real momentum being generated.”
Swauger said the data will be further analyzed to help create an ongoing recycling education plan. Additionally, he hopes to be able to conduct the Feet on the Street assessment for another 20,000 residents in 2020.