Akron’s aggressive 12-week recycling education and inspection program is nearing the end, and organizers say they’re pleased with the changes that residents have made — but there’s still more work to be done.

This summer, the city of Akron was awarded a $236,000 grant by the Ohio EPA, a national group called the Recycling Partnership, Keep Akron Beautiful and ReWorks to inspect recycling bins during a three-month campaign. The goal was to educate residents about new recycling rules that limit what can be recycled based on new national after-markets for recycled materials.

The program was designed after a successful pilot program in Atlanta in 2017 by the Recycling Partnership, which reduced recycling contamination by 57%.

The city wants to help residents follow the new rules, which are universal in our region, statewide and most of the country.

I have written several columns about the changes. You can read them at www.tinyurl.com/abjrecycle.

But 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 that works 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.

In Akron, inspectors visually inspected every cart, leaving an “oops” tag if something that shouldn’t be recycled was in a container. The container was then turned around and the recyclables were not collected. The inspections have been ongoing for four weeks in a row and inspectors have seen many improvements by residents, said Dan Dempsey, Akron’s solid waste and recycling manager.

The inspectors mostly focused on these items to tag: plastic bags, cardboard with food residue, yard waste, textiles, tanglers (things like electrical cords or Christmas lights) and construction debris.

“We have seen certainly an improvement,” Dempsey said. “The biggest thing is just to get the dang bags out of the cart.”

Before I started reporting about the “new” recycling rules, I was also doing things wrong. We have been trained over the years to put our recyclables in bags and most of us use a bag of some sort in the kitchen to collect our recyclables. But then you should empty your bag and put recyclables loose into the cart. If not, the bag — with its recyclables — is removed from the recycling facility conveyor belt and sent to the trash.

Chris Ludle, Akron’s deputy service director, said there were 10,000 “oops” tags placed on recycle carts so far during the campaign. That’s out of 44,000 residential recycling customers, and most put their recycling out every other week.

Of those 10,000, about 2,000 tags were for bagged recyclables.

“We’ve already seen some results where these changes have proven where we’ve tagged them for maybe food waste or bags and we’ve gone back and they’ve changed and they’ve complied with our program. We’re very happy with the results, but there’s still a long way to go,” he said.

Ludle said he also wanted to address the glass issue, which continues to be a source of frustration for residents. Akron officials have asked residents to stop putting glass in the recycling cart, saying there is not an after-market nearby that is cost effective. The only community that is still accepting glass is Cuyahoga Falls, which is paying its recycler to accept glass.

Marcie Kress, executive director of ReWorks, acknowledges that there are recyclers in other communities that say they accept glass, but the global message is to focus on what recyclables have good markets for materials to keep the recycling stream clean. That does not include glass, which breaks into small pieces within the other recycled goods, she said.

During the campaign, no carts were tagged for putting glass in the containers, but the industry has not changed and the city does not want glass in the recycling container, Ludle said.

“We do not have anyone that will take the glass currently,” he said. “Until that changes, we’re really hoping what we’ve done with Keep Akron Beautiful in reducing the contamination in our recycling program, that we can relook at the glass in the recycling program.”

Inspectors did not dig through recycling carts, but lifted the lid to do a visual inspection and notify residents of any issues with the oops card.

On Thursday, one recycling cart on Fourth Street Northwest in Kenmore was filled to the brim with recyclables. Most were correct like flattened cardboard soft-drink cartons and aluminum cans. But there was also a Krispy Kreme doughnut box on top with some doughnuts still in it.

Any cardboard that has food residue, such as grease stains from pizza, cannot be recycled. And there definitely shouldn’t be actual food in the carton.

Johanna Barnowski, community outreach and program manager for Keep Akron Beautiful, who has also been among the inspectors, marked an “oops” tag for food. She also wrote “donuts in box," though she said inspectors don’t always go into detail besides checking the “yuck” box for food on the tag. There was also a 2-liter bottle with the cap still on it at the top of the cart.

Barnowski said though caps should be taken off bottles before they’re recycled, the campaign focused on the major categories for education.

The cart at the next house was good. Once she checked the app on her phone to mark the cart OK, Barnowski saw that two weeks ago, the house had gotten an “oops” tag for food on Aug. 1 and “now it’s a clean cart, so they did make a change.”

“Sometimes I wish I could give a gold star,” she said.

Throughout the summer, Barnowski said she’s had a lot of interaction with residents as she has inspected carts. “Some people are upset, but most people want to understand what they did wrong.”

Near another cart, Kenmore resident Tamela Young came outside Thursday to ask why Barnowski and Ludle were poking in people’s recycling carts.

Young was not aware of the city’s campaign (the city sent a postcard to all residents), but said it was a good idea.

“There needs to be more education,” said Young, who doesn’t recycle but said she re-uses all of her containers. Young also said changes needed to be made at the manufacturer level to use more recyclable containers.

At the city’s service center, Dempsey showed me some of the approximately 175 recycling carts that were taken from residents’ curbs for “egregious” violations. Most were filled to the top with trash, such as a bag with a backpack filled with school supplies, a bag of McDonald's trash, shoes and bags of trash.

“If the overall condition of the cart is heavily contaminated, it would be removed. If it’s something you could tell that effort is being made, we try to leave them information to help nudge them over to phenomenal recycler,” Dempsey said.

Akron residents receive a $2.50 credit on their bills to recycle, so when the cart is removed, they lose that credit. A letter is mailed to the home to explain why the cart was removed. Dempsey said he speaks with residents who call after their cart is removed. If they are willing to work on their recycling, he returns the cart.

Kress said ReWorks has been actively involved in the campaign to observe what works and whether similar grants and programs can happen in other area communities.

 

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/topics/linfisher