In recent years, concerns around material quality have grown among material recovery facility (MRF) operators, particularly as the industry has faced weaker market conditions.
“We know contamination has become a huge issue for material recovery facilities (MRFs),” says Scott Mouw, senior director of strategy and research at The Recycling Partnership. “We know MRFs are wrestling with bringing in cleaner material. One of the key ways to figure out that issue is to look at what’s coming in on the trucks with inbound material.”
Last year, The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, worked on developing its "2020 State of Curbside Recycling" report, which was released Feb. 13. One of the figures that the nonprofit tracked in its report was how many communities are knowledgeable about their inbound contamination rates. According to the "2020 State of Curbside Recycling" study, only about one-third of communities know this figure. Of that one-third of communities, Mouw says the average inbound contamination rate is 17 percent.
“This data tells us that MRFs and communities need to do a much better job talking about inbound contamination and analyzing that data,” Mouw says. “If you don’t know what that [number] is and don’t know the nature of the inbound contamination, you can’t do anything about it. But if more and more communities and MRFs work together, hopefully, we can get to a point where more than 75 percent of communities know their inbound contamination rates, and those communities will be in a better position to improve on material quality.”
Inbound contamination was just one of the issues researched in The Recycling Partnership’s "2020 State of Curbside Recycling" report. Mouw says the report findings are based on data and information from its 2019 State of Curbside survey sent out in July 2019, information from 49 Municipal Measurement Program reports, research from the nonprofit’s West Coast Contamination Initiative, data from 28 grant programs it worked on as of November 2019 and more than 300 media stories.
Mouw says the nonprofit released a similar study in 2016 that looked at why curbside collection programs were strong in some communities and not in others. He says the "2020 State of Curbside Recycling" report updates some of the information from the 2016 report.
Mouw adds that conditions for municipal recycling have “really changed" since 2016.
“We are very aware that the collection side of curbside is important but that it’s not the only part that matters, especially now that we have headwinds with end markets,” he says. “We felt like we needed a more comprehensive view of curbside recycling as a system in the United States. [The 2020 report] is meant to be comprehensive on curbside systems, what challenges it’s facing, how we overcome the challenges and plotting a path forward to improve curbside systems.”
Takeaways from the report
The in-depth report offers insights on a variety of aspects of municipal recycling, including the basic dimensions of the U.S. curbside recycling system, curbside recycling program performances, the impact changing material values have on curbside programs, how community programs are reacting to challenges and ways to improve curbside recycling programs.
One figure The Recycling Partnership looked at in the study was verifying the number of communities that have truly eliminated their curbside recycling programs. In recent years, Mouw says the nonprofit has been monitoring news stories about closing curbside recycling programs. For this report, The Recycling Partnership reviewed these stories it found and verified with each community whether the curbside recycling program had closed. In total, Mouw says about 50 cities officially have eliminated curbside recycling programs since 2018. The report notes that more than 480,000 residents were affected by these changes.
“One of the reasons we did that work was there were some media reports that said, ‘hundreds of programs have been eliminated,’” he says. “We just felt that that wasn’t true. So, we decided to collect some data on this.”
That full list of cities that ended curbside recycling since 2018 can be found in Appendix B of the "2020 State of Curbside Recycling" report.
According to The Recycling Partnership, some other takeaways from the report include:
- more than 20 million tons of curbside recyclables are disposed of annually;
- only half of Americans have automatic access to curbside recycling, and some who do have access do not participate in the programs; and
- many communities are paying more to send materials to MRFs than to landfills, and most programs lack operating funds.
To address these issues, the report offers best practices for MRFs on improving curbside recycling programs in the communities they work with as well as a case study on the city of Sarasota’s curbside recycling program.
“The report shows data and information on tried-and-true techniques to improve contamination,” Mouw says. “One thing we would love to happen from this report is more MRFs becoming involved in their communities, not just assessing contamination but also acting on that information and doing things like cart tagging to make sure carts are tagged when there is contamination.”