For anyone tasked with the responsibility to add to a recycling program, before you take the steps on how to do it, you need to understand if you can do it.

By  Kris Kaar

Many of you are tasked with adding an item to your recycling program in view of advanced technology, packaging changes and higher recycling goals. Often, those advocating to add materials may not completely understand what that takes. For anyone tasked with the responsibility to add to a recycling program, before you take the steps on how to do that, you need to understand if you can do that.


True Recyclability

First, we need to understand the material. What is the size and form—three-dimensional or flat, bottle, clamshell, rigid or flexible? What is it made of—metal or plastic? What kind of plastic—PET or PP film? Is a similar material already included in your program and recovered? Can it be included with another material? If it’s made of more than one material, what is targeted to be recycled?  How much of it is in the waste stream? You will need to be able to describe these criteria as they affect the if and the how.


The If and the How

True recyclability means the ability to make it to the end of the recycling value chain. The ability to collect the material at the curb/drop off may be the first thought, however, you need to extend your view further downstream to the capability of processing it at the MRF and the demand of the commodity at the end market.

It’s best to start at the tail end of the recycling value chain—the end market. The item has to have somewhere to go to start its next life. This is where your key criteria come into play—material type, size/form and quantity. Based on that criteria, the search to procure end markets starts in earnest.

If no one is looking to buy the commodity, then you are starting a hard climb at the base of a very tall mountain. If there is a demand for the commodity, it is helpful to know its relative value. If the item has a moderate value, you may find yourself needing to justify its inclusion in your program. What quantity is needed to cross the value threshold?

Identifying an end market needs to include considerations, such as where the end markets are established and what types of shipping to the end markets are required. It is also helpful to know if there is a single, unique market or multiple markets in multiple locations. This information would provide security for continued shipping in the event of economic downturns or circumstances that might prevent an end market from receiving materials, either temporarily or permanently.

The next step in the process is determining if the item fits at the MRF. Is the item showing up in the current recycling stream? If so, is it already being recovered or is it pulled as a contaminant during the sorting process? If the item is currently being handled, this could lead you to determine if it is a viable option to add to the program. Could this new item fit the criteria for an existing bale? What does it do to the value of that bale? The key is to have the material add value and not become a contaminant to the bale. If it must be its own marketable material, the MRF must be able to sort it from the other materials and also have adequate quantity of the material to ship and market to justify the costs of sorting verses disposal.

The next step in the chain is to be cognizant of how the item will be collected from the consumer. Does it fit into the curbside cart or in a container at the drop off site? Can it be mixed with other materials being collected? Is there room for an additional container at the drop off? If it can’t be included within the existing collection program, does that mean the idea is dead? Be sure to keep an open mind to other options on collection. Recyclable materials such as textiles, carpeting or electronics may pose logistical challenges for curbside collection programs; however, special drop-off or collection days could serve the community’s needs.

A valuable resource in determining the inclusion of an item in a recycling program is your peer network. Reach out to your peers. Make sure you network with people that share the same responsibility across communities, locally as well as in other regions. You may connect with others who are considering adding the same material, discover new market opportunities, or innovations that will steer you along the decision path and collaborate to help you avoid obstacles others may have run into.


The How Has a Lot to do with the Who

To ensure the material reaches its destined market, we need to work our way through all the links in the recycling value chain: the MRF, the hauler and the community. It is essential to have and maintain good relationships across the supply chain. There is risk involved with adding materials—the hauler may not find a MRF to dump to, the MRF may not be able to sort or the end market suffers due to lowered bale quality. This is a cooperative process where everyone needs to see value, minimize or share risk, and find a way for everyone to win. There are variations on these relationships.




Who owns and operates the MRF? Some communities own and operate its own MRF or are a part of a multi-community, publicly owned facility. Adding a material could enhance several programs and all participating members can work together to support the change. Some communities have their materials hauled to a privately owned and operated MRF. In that case, does the community only deal with the hauler or does it have a relationship with the MRF? If the hauler has the direct relationship with the MRF, see if you can be a part of that discussion. Sitting down as partners could lead to a more successful conclusion.

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed with the MRF. Does the new item fit into the current infrastructure or does the MRF require a modification? If a modification is required, who is going to pay for it? There are a number of associations offering grants to increase recycling of a specific material/item. Understanding those opportunities before you sit down with the MRF may make the discussion a bit easier.


The Hauler

Does the community do its own hauling or is it contracted? Are there multiple haulers serving the community? Each hauler serving a community will need to be informed of the proposed change to ensure that all the haulers have the same marketing advantage to the community and the entire community has the option for access to the enhanced service. How does this item affect your contract with the MRF and/or the hauler? We can’t always add items because contracts are so tightly written. Take a good look at the contract: is there a way to do this without making it a rebid situation? If the contract is due for renewal or rebid, consider the language of the contract to add the new materials and what mechanism might be useful to add new items during the length of the contract.


The Community: Education and Outreach

The final link in the value chain is the Community. The ultimate success of a recycling program is having residents know what can be included in the program and actively participating by only placing those materials out for collection. Adding new items offers the opportunity to remind all residents about their recycling program, showcase improvements to the program and re-evaluate how you communicated your recycling instructions.

As you add new items, keep it simple. Recycling professionals like to geek out on what is and isn’t recyclable, residents do not.  Revisit your public facing messaging and how you are talking about recyclables. A few key elements to remember:

  • Be clear and use pictures: Be sure whatever you are adding can be identified separately from anything you are not including. Does “steel” mean steel cans or metal pots, disc brakes, or engine blocks? If you’re adding a plastic container, be sure you clarify containers and not plastic toys. We say white goods, but does that mean towels and linens or washing machines to the public?
  • Never one and done: Reinforce your message multiple times over several communication mediums. Know the demographics of your audience and where they get their information—newspaper, social media, Web sites, town meetings, etc.
  • Out with the old, sort of: Be sure to acknowledge old messaging and update it to reduce confusion. Be sure you update all your sources; if your Web site links to multiple pages, check them all and update all the language, graphics and collection instructions. Make it fresh, new, so it will capture the attention of frequent visitors as well as the first-time reader.


It’s Not Over

Revisit and often. Problems may arise after the item is added. Check in with the hauler and MRF. If there is a problem, seek a solution collaboratively. Poll your public to see if they received the message and recognize that it is recyclable. Keep a finger on the pulse of your program and what is working and what isn’t.


Once you have added the new item to your program and have assessed, adjusted and reassessed, become that resource for other communities. Shared experiences provide new perspectives and resources you may not know exist. You may become the resource that will inform and guide others past obstacles. Learn from each other’s experience. Make it a habit to re-visit with your network: compare strategies and program results with each other. You may find another community followed your program change, but found a new or better way to collect or communicate to their audience.

And don’t forget, it takes time. Time to develop relationships with the who, time to develop knowledge of materials, time to understand if and how the item flows through the recycling value chain, and time to connect (and reconnect) with your community. But once you have those connections, the next time you are faced with a new item—and there will be a next time—you will be set up with the correct if, how and who. | WA

Kris Kaar is Senior Consultant for Resource Recycling Systems (Ann Arbor, MI), bringing 30 years of research, planning and program management experience. Kris has served on technical advisory committees for several Illinois communities including DuPage and Will counties, as well as serving on boards and committees in key organizations including SWANA’s International Board and Land of Lincoln Chapter, IRA, and NSWMA (now NWRA). Kris can be reached at [email protected].