Audit shows Elgin residents are getting better at recycling

Elgin residents are getting better at recycling.

A recent audit of items put out for recycling in Elgin shows a 16 percent level of contamination, according to Waste Management, the company under contract to haul refuse and recyclables throughout the city.

“This is a significant improvement from our baseline of 42 percent two years ago. Drivers are reporting that they are seeing marked improvement in the contamination and composition of recycling materials … Elgin’s recycle materials have significantly improved making it possible to market,” the memo states.

Contamination refers to the percentage of items that won’t be taken for recycling because they are not being recycled through weekly collection, such as plastic shopping bags or Styrofoam, or because they are soiled, as with greasy pizza box tops and used fast-food wrappers.

Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain said the city’s improvement in compliance is proof that people want to do the right thing for the environment.

“But in cases like this, you have to educate on what the right thing is,” Kaptain said.

In 2016, Elgin and Waste Management embarked on a recycling contamination reduction program dubbed “Recycle Often. Recycle Right,” or RORR.

Lisa Disbrow, Waste Management Director of Government & Public Affairs, said Elgin was the initial rollout city for the program in the Chicago market. Currently, more than a dozen towns in this area are taking part in the effort, Disbrow said.

“Elgin was identified (for the pilot program) with potential to improve material quality,” Disbrow said.

Kaptain said that early in the effort, Waste Management staff showed him the stream of items put in recycling, which gave him an idea of what was being left in bins.

“We sure eat a lot of pizza in this country,” Kaptain said.

A Waste Management truck picks up garbage and recycling items recently on Spring Street.
A recent audit of items put out for recycling in Elgin shows a 16 percent level of contamination, according to Waste Management. That is a significant improvement, company officials said. (Gloria Casas. / The Courier-News)
Elgin Sustainability Coordinator and Communications Specialist Molly Center said the effort gradually was rolled out across routes. Residents were made aware of the effort by various means. Those included distributing a newsletter and recycle list, placing hangers on recycle carts at the curb, having drivers talk to residents, sharing information via the city website and social media, promoting it at community events, and getting word out through traditional media.

Route drivers initially would tag bins found with items unacceptable for the recycling stream, Center said. The next phase had drivers tag unacceptable bins and leave them uncollected.

Center said a top reason for success was the city’s 311 Department, which residents could call if they had questions about their recycling, particularly if their bins were not emptied.

Waste Management provides single-stream recycling, where all items are mixed together. The company services the city five days a week across six routes per day, or 30 total routes, and collects 180 tons of recyclable material per week from about 29,000 homes, according to information from a 2017 presentation to the Elgin City Council.

Center said single-stream recycling doesn’t accept plastic bags because they clog up machines used in sorting. She said recyclables go directly into the bin unbagged, and people can bring plastic bags to local merchants and grocers who offer recycling. Those were essential messages to get out to residents toward compliance, Center said.

Another factor that helped keep inappropriate items out of Waste Management bins was Elgin’s three-year agreement in 2017 with Ohio-based Simple Recycling, Center said.

With this effort, residents are able to recycle shoes and clothing, regardless of condition. They also can recycle small appliances and other unwanted household goods that otherwise cannot be donated to nonprofits. Such items cannot be taken in the Waste Management collections, Center said.

With the free-for-residents-to-use Simple Recycling program, items are left curbside in orange bags that can be ordered online or picked up at Elgin City Hall, Center said. Items are picked up by Simple Recycling on the same days that Waste Management hauls away regular trash and what it takes in its own recycling program.

Elgin gets a penny-per-pound-collected from Simple Recycling and was paid more than $2,400 for the last six months of 2017, Center said.

Materials including pamphlets and cart hangers are part of the Waste Management recycling reduction
Materials including pamphlets and cart hangers were part of Waste Management’s “Recycle Right. Recycle Often” program, which used Elgin as its pilot program in the Chicago area. (Mike Danahey / The Courier-News)
All told, Waste Management has been so pleased with the results in Elgin that is uses the city as an example for other places across the country.

“The recycling education partnership between Elgin and Waste Management was featured in the U.S. Conference of Mayors 2017 best practices (book),” Disbrow said.

Disbrow said Waste Management Public Sector Representative Vaughn Kuerschner will be talking about the recycling effort at the Elgin City Council meeting Wednesday.

Beyond that, Kaptain said details are being ironed out for a community conversation in June that will focus on various aspects of the city’s refuse collection, such as recycling, leaf rake-out and yard waste programs.

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