Elgin, Waste Management reduce recycling contamination
A pilot program designed to decrease recycling contamination -- primarily from plastic bags -- in Elgin did much better than in other communities served by Waste Management, company representatives told the city council Wednesday.
The city and Waste Management, which Elgin contracts for refuse services, partnered for the "Recycle Often. Recycle Right." program that targeted, in different phases, various neighborhoods beginning in January 2016.
"Elgin has been a great partner," said Vaughn Kuerschner, public sector solutions representative for the company.
Results for the pilot program in Elgin have been greater than in communities in Colorado and California where the company also offered it, he said. "Together we can make a difference, and each person can make a difference."
The aim is to instill three behaviors: recycle all empty bottles, cans, paper and cardboard; keep food and liquids out; and keep plastic bags out.
"Unless you have a clean (pizza) box, it goes into the garbage," Kuerschner said.
Contamination dropped between 21.4 percent and 40.6 percent in different neighborhoods through August, data show. The latest numbers are being calculated. By the end, less than 1 in 3 household refuse carts were contaminated, with the goal being 10 percent.
Altogether, about 11,500 homes in Elgin have been included in the program, with another 3,850 targeted in February and the remaining 15,000 or so sometime later this year.
Residents get a red hanger on their refuse carts when they throw in nonrecyclables and green hangers when they stop doing that or do it less. The hangers are in English and Spanish.
The clear, simple goals of the campaign are effective, said Sheila Sarovich, a marketing representative for the company.
"Consumers really want to do the right thing," she said. "They want to recycle, but they are simply confused."
Council member John Steffen pointed out that plastic bags cannot be recycled via Waste Management but can be recycled at grocery stores such as Jewel, Meijer and Wal-Mart.
The city's sustainability commission also participates in the effort to reduce the use of plastic bags, city liaison Molly Center said. For example, the annual Earth Day celebration in April distributed free reusable bags to residents, she said.
The recycling industry is experiencing a "perfect storm" that has driven costs up, Sarovich said. The company collects 180 tons of recyclable material each week in Elgin.
Factors include a slowing economy in China -- traditionally a large consumer of recycling goods -- and low oil prices, which leads to lower costs in creating plastic using new, rather than recycled, material, she said.
A Facebook ad titled "Help Elgin recycle right," targeting Elgin ZIP codes, did much better than the industry average, with nearly 2.5 percent of users clicking on it, compared with an average of 0.7 percent, according to data presented by Waste Management.
"It just shows that Elgin is really a very savvy town when it comes to social media," Sarovich said.