City forms partnership to improve recycling

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The Feet on the Street program is intended to increase the number of items accepted for recycling that are clean, empty and dry. Photo by iStock

The city of Grand Rapids is teaming with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy and national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership to introduce a communitywide project aimed at improving the quality of materials residents recycle in their curbside carts.

The city will launch The Recycling Partnership’s Feet on the Street cart-tagging recycling campaign in mid-September with communitywide education and outreach initiatives continuing through mid-November.

The Feet on the Street program is intended to increase the number of items accepted for recycling that are clean, empty and dry. Achieving the quality standard in recycled materials ensures they can circulate back in the recycling system to become new products or packaging while also reducing the number of nonrecyclables in recycling bins.

Feet on the Street also helps communities achieve economically efficient recycling programs, reduces the number of new resources used in packaging by providing more recycled content for new products and improves the cleanliness of communities.

The new effort by the city will improve the quality of recycling in single-stream curbside recycling bins by providing Grand Rapids’ roughly 55,000 households with personalized and real-time curbside recycling education and feedback. The city is providing a $15,000 matching grant to support the campaign.

“Recycling is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, and this program furthers our strategic priority of health and environment,” said James Hurt, Grand Rapids managing director of public services. “This helps us minimize waste generation and promote waste diversion practices by improving the quality and amount of recycling we collect.

Feet on the Street includes a comprehensive education and outreach strategy that involves a team of community-based observers who will visit each Grand Rapids resident’s cart and provide tailored feedback on how to improve items that make it into the cart.

Residents this week can expect to receive a postcard in the mail from the city announcing the campaign’s kickoff. The postcard will be in both English and Spanish and informs residents that Feet on the Street representatives will visit neighborhoods on scheduled recycling pickup days over a three-month span.

The representatives will open recycling carts, review their content and leave behind a tag with personalized feedback to help residents recycle better.

The postcard also reminds residents to recycle paper, cartons, cardboard, metal items such as cans, plastic bottles, jars and jugs as well as glass bottles and jars. Residents also are urged to not bag their recyclables and not recycle such items as plastic bags or plastic wrap, “tanglers” such as cords, hoses or chains, yard waste, food and liquids.

“The Feet on the Street program works by giving residents instant feedback on what is and is not recyclable,” said Jill Martin, director of community programs at The Recycling Partnership. “Through this personalized and real-time feedback loop, we are going to help the city of Grand Rapids capture more quality recyclables that can then be transformed into new materials, creating and supporting jobs, a less wasteful planet and stronger, healthier communities,” Martin said.

Over the past few years, the city has seen an increase in the number of contaminated recyclables in bins throughout Grand Rapids, Hurt said. Historically, the contamination rate in the recycling stream averaged between 8% and 10%, which was considered acceptable by the Kent County Recycling Center. But in recent years, the contamination rate has increased by 12% to 15%.

“Material should be empty and dry and practically free of any contaminants, including food and liquids, which can prevent recyclables from being recovered and turned into new products,” Hurt said.

Placing nonrecyclables in the recycling cart means haulers may be forced to redirect loads containing too many nonrecyclables to the Kent County Waste to Energy Facility. The city’s public works department has an enforcement policy that allows it to remove carts from customers who routinely fill their recycling cart with nonrecyclables or contaminated materials. This practice, however, has not reduced the amount of contamination in Grand Rapids’ recycling system, Hurt said.

The Feet on the Street initiative also aligns with EGLE’s “Know It Before You Throw It” recycling education campaign. The effort promotes best practices and emphasizes that recycling materials saves energy, reduces water use, decreases greenhouse gases, conserves resources and translates into local jobs.

“We are looking forward to partnering with Michigan communities and The Recycling Partnership on this data-driven approach,” said Liz Browne, acting director of EGLE’s materials management division. “It’s more important than ever to communicate with the public in order to improve the quality of materials being recycled. We all have a role to play in helping businesses get materials to make the essential products Michigan needs for our economic recovery from COVID-19, such as toilet paper, food containers and shipping boxes.”

The Recycling Partnership implemented the Feet on the Street program in 70 communities across the country, resulting in an average of 27% increases in the overall capture of quality recyclables with some communities seeing as much as a 57% decrease of nonrecyclables in their recycling stream.

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