Reducing Recycling Contamination

Day 260 – Our neighbors in Grand Rapids, Michigan, just recently won an award. They earned Resource Recycling Inc.’s 2021 Program of the Year award in the Large City category, which was open to municipalities with 150,000 residents or more.

The City of Grand Rapids teamed with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership to introduce a first-of-its-kind community wide project aimed at improving the quality of materials residents recycle in their curbside carts last fall. The Recycling Racoon Squad helped educate residents, ““Know It Before You Throw It”. 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. 

City crews collected 7,170 tons of recyclables from more than 50,500 households in the most recent program year. In its submission materials to the awards program, Grand Rapids reported a contamination rate of 7.4 percent. The percentage is far lower than what’s being seen in many local programs in the U.S., where contamination rates above 20 percent are common. 

Grand Rapids program leaders work closely with the nearby Kent County materials recovery facility (MRF) to educate residents and enforce strict anti-contamination controls. Educational efforts include removing carts after high levels of trash are found in recycling at a residence three times and providing “Recycling 101” educational materials before residents can get their carts back.

Grand Rapids also implemented a “Feet on the Street” anti-contamination tagging program in the fall of 2020, inspecting recycling setouts at all 50,540 serviced households over the course of eight weeks. That effort reduced contamination in the local recycling stream by 37 percent, according to program leaders.

So the question is, could this work in other cities?

It seems like it all comes down to education and of course having people that care about the planet. Without those two things, reducing recycling contamination will continue to be an unreachable goal.

Keep up the good work Grand Rapids! You are showing the country and the world that coming together as a community to accomplish an important goal that helps benefit people and the planet is achievable.

Tomorrow, the story of stuff.

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