Amanda, our shared Zero-Waste intern with West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), shares her experience with the City of Grand Rapids’ Feet on the Street Campaign and how contamination affects the rest of the recycling process, including the sorting, baling, and value of recyclable bales at Kent County Recycling Center. You can read her other blogs by clicking here!

 

While the eight week “Feet on the Street” recycling outreach program has reached its conclusion, the effects will hopefully continue to be seen long after. The project certainly faced some challenges as a result of the pandemic, but was able to be completed nonetheless.  In the end the results speak for themselves.

Just before the holidays, I participated in “Feet on the Street’s” final sort analysis at Kent County’s Recycling and Education Center to assess the program’s impact. While wrapping up the project, the final sort was unfortunately cut short due to limitations for on-site staffing during the pandemic.  Due to this challenge, it was unclear if the data would display what we had hoped for–a significant decrease in contamination in Kent County’s recycling stream. Despite assessing fewer trucks and routes than planned, it was still evident that the project was an overall success for recycling in Grand Rapids. While more detailed information is still to come and be made available to Kent County’s residents about the specifics of the analysis, I wanted to share my experience participating in the sort and some feelings shared with me by both Recycling Center employees and The Recycling Partnership regarding the outcome of the Grand Rapids post-sort. 

There are 55,000 houses in the Grand Rapids area. While not every house puts a recycling bin to the curb each week, data collected through the project found that an overall average of 60% of bins were set out for assessment. With the audit taking place over four “passes” at each home, the intent was that each bin could be analyzed four times over the eight weeks. Data across that time also revealed that, on every pass, an increasing number of bins were set out–an exciting statistical takeaway as it means Grand Rapids residents took the project on as a challenge, putting their bins to the test at the curb rather than not putting them out because of the fear of a warning or rejection tag.

In the collection app used by inspectors, each bin inspected was either marked clean or contaminated, with the specific instances of contamination noted in the case of the latter. The data showed exactly what we hoped to see across the two months, beginning in September and ending in mid November–a steady decrease of contaminated containers over each of the four passes. What does this mean then for the results of the study? Grand Rapids residents were not only motivated to participate, but made active changes to their recycling habits throughout the project resulting in a significant increase to the quality of recycling that went to Kent County’s Recycling and Education Center–certainly something to celebrate in addition to the arrival of a new yea!

This decrease in contamination was enough to be evident at the Recycling Center as well. As I spoke with Recycling Site Supervisor Kyle Shoemaker at the beginning of the post-sort analysis, he commented that the staff and sort line workers were able to see a noticeable decrease in contamination during the eight week period. 

The expectations I had of what a post-sort at the Recycling Center led by The Recycling Partnership would be like, were very different than what I was faced with during the actual post-sort process and analysis. The sampling process involved hundreds of piles of recycled material scooped with shovels into large bins to then be meticulously sorted, material by material, into one of about 30 categories. Every type of acceptable recyclable material was sorted, along with every piece of contamination. In an ideal situation, sorting out recycling means exactly that–sorting through clean bits of paper, plastic, metal, glass, and cardboard. What meets together in one of the city’s recycling trucks, however, looks much different. Bags of trash, clothes, food, and hazardous material, to name a few of the unsightly items, had to be sifted through in over a thousand pounds of recycling and garbage. Every last bit of the load of “recycling” down to individual shredded bits of paper, small pieces of moldy food, and broken glass were sorted. It was a very tedious and dirty job. Still, I had anticipated that it would be since seeing the process in motion at the Recycling Center, but I had not anticipated just how tedious and dirty it would be with the contamination that was still present.  Even with the noted improvement from the pre-sort analysis and the comments by staff about the increased quality of the material in the stream, it was still shocking to me that some of the material coming in appeared this contaminated.

This being said, the overall takeaway is that while the stream is obviously not altogether free of contamination, improvements are happening–in this respect, Grand Rapid’s “Feet on the Street” program was a success. It is evident that the educational nature of the audit has made an impact on the community, and that in large part our neighbors are interested and listening to the ways we can improve our recycling stream to benefit people, the economy, and Grand Rapids as a whole. This is extremely encouraging, as the Kent County Recycling and Education Center can only accomplish a limited amount on its own–it is resident involvement that will be paramount to reaching the county’s goal for 90% of waste to be diverted from landfills by 2030.