Waste Management curbs contaminants in recycling bins with program

Waste Management’s recycling facility operates six days a week. Workers sort recyclable materials to be baled and, in many cases, exported to China.


LODI — Recycling isn’t a puzzle when it comes to taking care of the environment. One Central Valley company is looking to take the guesswork out of what goes in the recycling bin and what goes in the trash.

Waste Management began its Recycle Right program after conducting research to see how customers in the Lodi market were filling their recycling carts. Turns out it wasn’t ideal.

“What we’ve been seeing — it’s actually industry-wide — is the amount of contamination in the recycling stream. It’s folks that are using the recycle cart as trash,” said Joe Cadelago, Public Sector Services Manager for Waste Management. “We see diapers, we see bags of charcoal, we see bowling balls; all sorts of stuff that shouldn’t be in a recycle cart.”

Cadelago said Waste Management routinely does content studies to see just how much contaminants have been in placed into recycling by residents. The data shows numbers as high as 74 percent, he said. The trash and recycling industry wants that number to be more around 10 to 15 percent.

Striving to reduce those numbers, Waste Management began its Recycle Right program to educate and incentivize Lodi residents to place trash, recyclables and yard waste in their respective bins.

If residents continued to place trash into the recycling, warnings would be issued, then a fee would be assessed and, finally, residents would have their bin upsized for one year, for which they would be billed the larger size.

Within the first two weeks of the program, Waste Management began to receive customer feedback.

“The customers got the message. Citywide, we saw a decrease in contamination,” Cadelago said. Customers were also wondering if they would be charged, and wanted to know what to do if they accidentally put the wrong thing in their recycling or yard waste. “We got a lot of customer input. And the city got a lot of blowback. We sat back down with the city and said, ‘Let’s revamp this.’”

Cadelago said it was decided that two warnings would be given before taking action, and the theme changed from “Recycle Right or Lose the Right” to just “Recycle Right.”

“We also made new tags for customers who were recycling correctly. We wanted to encourage and incentivize them,” Cadelago said. Auditors who saw customers recycling properly were given a “thank you” tag. They were also entered into a weekly drawing for $150 that could then be put toward their bill or awarded in a cash card.

The percentage of contaminants on the route that came in at 74 percent had dropped to 54 percent, Cadelago said.

“Fifty-four percent is still bad, but it’s a big improvement from before,” Cadelago said. “It’s a big improvement. We’re seeing similar drops on other routes.”

Waste Management got the idea from a similar program in Manteca which yielded positive results, and the company is trying the Recycle Right program, although slightly different, for its Stockton customers.

Though the program focuses on residential customers, businesses are not exempt from recycling … especially restaurants.
Assembly Bill 1826 requires businesses that generate more than four cubic yards of commercial solid waste each week to have recycling services.

“The biggest threshold that’s coming up is January 21 of 2019. That’s when, essentially, the majority of businesses in the state are going to have to start recycling their food waste,” Cadelago said. “Do businesses need a new bin? We’ll need to order new trucks that can service the food waste, but it’s very heavy and has a lot of sludge. We have to make sure it doesn’t leak out of the trucks.”

But, Cadelago said, it all comes back to outreach and education. Customers need to know what can be thrown out and what can be recycled.
“Ultimately what you want is a clean product,” Cadelago said. “There’s going to be a huge effort on everybody’s part, on the educational end of it, for what can go in.”


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