Curbing the city’s contaminated recycling

Cleaner waste streams essential for collectors in tight market

recycling label requirements
New recycling label requirements are going into effect on Jan. 1 for private haulers in Hennepin County. Image courtesy of Hennepin County

After decades of educational campaigns, recycling can seem like old news. But this year, Minneapolis is getting back to recycling basics. At issue is not the volume of recyclables, but rather their states of contamination — the proportion of discarded material that can’t be processed and must be sent to the trash heap. 

Compared with other cities, Minneapolis’s recycling numbers look pretty good. Municipal contamination rates are between 7%–9%, far below the national average of 25%. 

Kellie Kish, the city recycling coordinator, credits municipal success to regionally consistent recycling requirements; the rules about what is and is not recyclable are the same in the entire Twin Cities metro, cutting down on consumer confusion and allowing for more effective and streamlined public education campaigns.  

Manual collection also makes a difference. Many cities have switched to automated collection trucks, but the manual approach provides collectors with “an opportunity to look inside every single cart before it is dumped,” Kish said. 

Cleaner recycling is easier to process, makes for better products and ultimately holds higher market value. And because recycling is a commodity bought and sold through the private market, people have to make money in order for the system to function, whether through the sale of raw recyclables or the products they turn into.      

A 2018 change in China’s recycling import policy, restricting the types of accepted materials and setting stringent contamination limits, wiped out about 40% of the market for U.S. recyclables virtually overnight. Bins of old newspapers and excess cardboard suddenly became a lot more expensive to deal with and a lot less valuable, sending waste management companies into a panic and throwing the existences of entire municipal recycling programs into question. 

China’s policy shift isn’t going to spell the death of recycling for Minneapolis. The city has long been sending its publicly collected recyclables to the nonprofit Eureka Recycling facility in Northeast Minneapolis rather than overseas. 

But local recyclers — both public and private — are certainly feeling the impact of the market downturn. As a result, they are eyeing contamination levels as a source of improvement. 

As reported earlier this year in Mpls.St.Paul magazine, market conditions forced Eureka to eliminate eight staff positions in recycling policy and education. And as the market for recyclables is increasingly saturated, the demand for clean, easy-to-process recycling grows greater — and the wiggle room for recycling mistakes shrinks. “Local [recycling] supply is so high now that the value for it is low,” Kish said. “To be able to sell your recycling in a market like this, the cleaner it is, the more attractive it is to sell.”

Julie Ketchum is a public affairs liaison for Waste Management, a waste services provider that serves more than 20 million customers nationwide. She said the result of this oversupply is that “end markets can be more selective about what the end material is like when they receive it. And because of that, recycling contamination has become a big concern.” 

At the company’s Minneapolis recycling center in Northeast, Waste Management has an average of three facility shutdowns per day lasting 20 minutes each to remove plastic bags from machinery.  

But while public and private collectors can agree on the contamination problem, their responses look pretty different.

John Melrose is a field foreman with the city’s solid waste and recycling department and a former recycling collector himself. Under city policy, recycling collectors are the first point of intervention for contamination mitigation. As he explained, collectors look in each recycling bin before dumping, and if they notice contamination, they leave an educational tag.  

After collectors tag a recycling cart, the city follows up with a letter explaining contamination concerns. If collection crews tag the same bin for contamination within the year, the cart is pulled altogether. Residents can either pay a fee to get their recycling cart returned or wait three months before requesting another at no cost.

Ultimately, whether contamination is flagged at the curbside level depends on who’s looking, Kish said. With between 700 and 1,200 stops on any given route, it’s inevitable that contamination gets missed even by the best-trained eye. 

Still, Melrose estimates that each collection crew leaves anywhere from 10–20 educational tags per shift. According to city data, since this protocol was initiated in December 2012, nearly 22,000 contamination letters have been mailed and almost 500 residents have paid fees to get their recycling carts replaced.  

This process only pertains to residents served by city recycling operations. Commercial facilities and residential buildings with more than four units are left to independently contract with private waste management companies. When it comes to private haulers, the city has no way of tracking contamination levels and little leverage to encourage improvement. 

Hennepin County does its best to fill the gaps, said Carolyn Collopy, the county’s acting supervising environmentalist. In addition to educational support, the county is flexing its regulatory muscle to give cities and customers more leverage to meet recycling goals. For example, under County Ordinance 13, adopted in 2017 with portions going into effect on Jan. 1, private haulers must meet new recycling label requirements and building managers must provide adequate recycling capacity for residents. 

But there is little the city or the county can do to track, let alone intervene in, a relationship between two private entities. “It’s the hauler that has that direct relationship [with buildings],” Collopy said. “If we don’t know about [problems], we can’t help.”

Private hauler contamination mitigation strategies include education, fees or simply pulling recycling service entirely. “Some haulers are quicker to fine and quicker to cut service than others,” Collopy said.  When it comes to fines, however, “the unfortunate thing is that a lot of customers don’t notice those changes on their bills.”

For collection companies, however, fines can be an important source of revenue in a struggling recycling market. “It’s frustrating to see because it’s not helping these properties,” Collopy said. “But there probably isn’t enough to legally incentivize private haulers to go the extra step.”  

Collopy suggested that there may be a role for consumer pressure. “The hauler also has a responsibility to provide accurate information to customers,” she said. “If you are a property manager who is having trouble negotiating with haulers, shop around!”

From Melrose’s perspective, public collection makes a difference. “We’re not in this to turn a profit,” he said. “Our No. 1 goal is to provide the best possible service.” Of course, the city has an economic incentive to bring in the highest value recycling in the process. “These trucks don’t run on hopes and dreams,” he said.