Grand Rapids tags dirty recycling bins again after uptick in plastic bags, other unacceptable items

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Residents might start noticing tags on their recycling carts again showing

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Residents might start noticing tags on their recycling carts again showing them what was improperly recycled as gains made by a curbside inspection program last fall have started slipping.

Grand Rapids stopped tagging carts for about four months after the program because people were recycling far better than they had before. For example, the tonnage of recyclables incinerated during that time due to unacceptable materials fell roughly 73%, compared to before the program.

In April, though, city officials started to see an uptick in the number of plastic bags, styrofoam, unrinsed food containers and other materials not accepted by the county’s recycling facility making their way back into carts.

“Our current recycling initiatives would be to continue to sustain the improvements that we did see from the Feet on the Street program,” said Robert Swain, acting director of the Grand Rapids Public Works Department. “We felt it was incredibly effective for several months. I would say probably around April, early April, we started to notice that it was, it was starting to sneak back up again.”

Officials aren’t sure why dirty recyclables are back on the rise, although it isn’t as bad as before the program, Swain said. Recycling figures for the month of April weren’t immediately available.

DPW workers started tagging carts again to remind people what shouldn’t be going into their carts.

The Feet on the Street campaign was a partnership between the city, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership.

Related: ‘Recycling detectives’ to check Grand Rapids residential bins for proper disposal habits

During the inspection campaign, which ran from September through October, curbside recycling bins for 65% to 75% of the city’s roughly 55,000 households were inspected four different times to examine what shouldn’t be in them, inform the resident of it and then check back to see if they complied.

Three months before the program began, from June through August, the contamination rate of incoming recyclables was about 28%. Three months after the program, from December through February, that rate averaged about 7.4%.

Comparing those two time periods, the tonnage of rejected recyclable loads also significantly decreased by about 73%, from an average of 236 rejected tons a month to 63 tons a month.

The overall tonnage of recyclables increased in the winter months, as well as the percentage of participating households.

The DPW doesn’t have the labor power to again conduct that intensive of an inspection and tagging campaign alone, so they’re relying on route audits and worker knowledge to target parts of routes they know have higher rates of contaminated recyclables.

The city DPW is working with the Kent County DPW to implement an education program, expected to launch in late June, that people will have to complete to get their recycling privileges back if they’ve been warned too many times of dirty or unacceptable recyclables in their carts.

Related: Repeat dirty recyclers in Grand Rapids will need to undergo education program to restart service

The educational program could come in the form of videos the resident must watch, and then take a quiz on, before they get their carts back. Swain said the materials would likely be sent electronically, as they don’t want to make residents travel to complete it.

“It was always really a discussion we were talking about: we should work on some kind of educational program for people,” Swain said. “Other than just getting a cart back, we want you to watch these videos or some kind of educational piece to show what is or is not recyclable, maybe a quiz, and that’s what we’re currently working on developing with the county.”

The DPW has long tagged carts letting residents know of a violation, be it something more innocent, like plastics bags that Kent County stopped accepting in late 2019, or people putting bags of trash and yard waste into the bins.

The tags used now, and during the Feet on the Street program, are more informative and include pictures of what shouldn’t have been recycled.

Prior to the upcoming education campaign, too many violations and warnings resulted in cart privileges being taken away for six months until a resident asks to reinstate them, at least for the first time.

There is more leniency given to new recyclers, as well as those who are putting unaccepted items like unrinsed food containers, plastic bags and styrofoam in their bins as opposed to those who continually try to recycle food waste, garbage and lawn refuse, Swain said.

Swain also wanted to remind residents not to bag their recyclables. When recyclables are bundled together in black trash bags, workers assume the bag is full of trash.

Whenever too many unacceptable or dirty recyclables get into a load, the entirety of that load is rejected from the county’s Materials Recovery Facility and instead directed to the incinerator at the county’s Waste to Energy Facility.

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