Akron is going directly through recycling carts to try to change the habits of the worst offenders contaminating the recycling stream.
These are things that have never been recyclable, like garden hoses, grass clippings and bowling balls.
This week, the approximately 44,000 Akron residential households that recycle curbside — and receive a recycling credit — will get mailers outlining the Recycle Right Campaign. (About 18,000 households do not recycle or get the credit.)
On June 3, temporary city workers — hired with a $236,000 grant the city was awarded by the Ohio EPA, a national group called the Recycling Partnership, Keep Akron Beautiful and ReWorks — will begin inspecting recycling bins during a three-month campaign. The goal is to inspect all bins three times.
The program is designed after a successful pilot program in Atlanta in 2017 by the Recycling Partnership, which reduced recycling contamination by 57 percent.
The partnership has found “that going bin to bin and putting a card in people’s recycling and having a human flip the lid and look inside to tell these people what they’re doing wrong has significantly decreased contamination rates in small and large cities across the country,” said Jacqui Flaherty-Ricchiuti, CEO of Keep Akron Beautiful, which received the grant on behalf of the city and will be spearheading the project with the city’s service department.
This is an aggressive campaign, which includes tagging the carts of the egregious offenders, putting an “oops” tag notifying of the offending items and not collecting the recycling that week.
The second time, households will get another "oops" tag. But the third time, the city will take away the recycling bin and the $2.50 recycling credit (It’s a $2 credit for homes eligible for the homestead exemption for seniors, those on disability and certain disabled veterans). The city has always had the right to take away a cart for big violations, city spokeswoman Ellen Lander Nischt said.
During the campaign, there are only five things that will be tagged: plastic bags, yard waste, textiles, tanglers (things like electrical cords or Christmas lights) and construction debris.
The campaign is not designed to be punitive, but educational, Nischt said. But the city wants to use the potential threat of losing the credit and bin to change the habits of households that place trash in the recycling bins, she said.
I’ve been assured this campaign is not about tagging or taking away recycling for those who may be struggling with the stricter rules that I’ve been writing about a lot since last fall.
The city still wants residents to follow the new rules, which are universal in our region, statewide and most of the country.
To recap, China, the largest purchaser of recycled materials, has cracked down on what it will buy. Too many bundles of recycled materials have become contaminated with other materials, making them worthless.
According to ReWorks, the Summit County Solid Waste Authority, which is tasked with working with governments and recyclers to educate the public about residential recycling and reducing landfill waste, current recyclable materials are plastic bottles and jugs (throw away the caps), aluminum and metal cans, paper, cartons and cardboard.
Glass is still controversial. In the Akron area, glass is only accepted in Cuyahoga Falls, which is paying its recycler to accept glass.
"We want the recycling program to be sustainable,” Nischt said. “We need the best recyclables to do that. Glass is not part of that. If you are insistent on putting glass in your cart, we’re not going to take your cart away,” she said. But Akron last fall said it no longer wants glass in the recycling carts since it costs the city extra.
Additionally, there’s been a lot of confusion among people who have called their recyclers and been told they still accept glass. ReWorks is still advising that residents stick to the items they know are recyclable with a good aftermarket.
“Improving the quality of materials collected through curbside recycling is essential to sustaining these programs. Placing only those items mentioned into recycling carts supports this goal,” said Marcie Kress, ReWorks executive director. “Another way to sustain recycling programs is to support recycling markets by purchasing items made from recycled material.”
Akron’s recycling contamination rate is about 39 percent, said deputy service director Chris Ludle. The program's goal is to cut that in half.
The top thing recyclers do wrong is bag them, officials said. Recyclables must be loose into the bin because bags get tangled at the recycling facilities. (Grocery stores have a program that will take plastic bags and other stretchable plastic. For information about that and my previous four recycling columns, go to www.tinyurl.com/abjrecycle for my first column and links to the others.)
ReWorks also recently commissioned local artists to take items that ReWorks staff took off the recycling conveyor belts that were not recyclable. The art pieces will be on display at libraries this summer, but several are photographed with this column online.
Mila Susnjar, ReWorks education and promotions specialist, was shocked at some of the items people tried to recycle, such as a plastic step stool, flashlight, car shock absorber, cast-iron pan and car floor mats.
As part of the Akron program, workers will be using an app to take photos of the contents in tagged recycling carts. The photos will be in a database so when residents call the city’s 311 service after seeing the tag, they can discuss what should not have been in the bin, Flaherty-Ricchiuti said.
The ultimate goal is to reduce the contaminated recycling stream in Akron to get higher-quality recyclables that can be sold for an aftermarket, Nischt said. The city is paying residents in the form of that credit, which costs $106,600 a month or $1.28 million a year. The city is losing money on recycling now, while it used to make money selling the materials, Nischt said.
There are no discussions about ending recycling in the city because those costs would just increase in trash going to the landfill, Nischt said. City officials last year debated ending the recycling credit, but the idea was met with pushback.
However, recycling “costs us money. The more it costs us, the more difficult it would be to sustain the program,” Nischt said.
“We want to be able to continue to recycle for its environmental benefits,” she said. “We are asking for the community’s help to recycle that high quality stuff.”
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/topics/linfisher.