A middle-aged man in dirt-covered overalls and gardening gloves stands in front of his trash can in confusion. His garden hose, which now has too many holes to be effective, is metal at both ends and plastic in the middle, so it can be recycled, right?Wrong.
Since Fort Worth’s recycling program, called single-stream recycling, was instituted in March 2003, the city has seen recycling rates jump from an average of 6 percent to 20 percent. The program was designed to encourage residents to recycle by providing one large bin for all recycling material as opposed to requiring the separation of items at the curb. With the new system, however, came new problems.
Contamination rates among recyclable materials rose to almost 40 percent, and the city started losing close to $50,000 a month due to the cost of separating the unwanted material, said Kim Mote, the assistant director of the City of Fort Worth’s Environmental Department.
“Comparing us to other single-stream cities,” Mote said, “(our contamination rates are) probably on the high end of where other cities are, but it’s not terribly bad.”
What this means is that Fort Worth residents could actually be saving themselves money by recycling the proper materials.
“(The money made from recycling) is returned to the Solid Waste Fund and is used to keep monthly fees as low as possible,” Mote said.
City officials say reasons for the contamination problem vary. Ellen Schmitz, a public education specialist with the city, said the single-stream system is prone to higher contamination rates because a wider range of materials is accepted.
“That type of collection generates more contamination,” Schmitz said. “Unfortunately, there are pros and cons to every system.”
Another reason, Schmitz said, is some residents don’t know what materials are fit to recycle, and others simply don’t care.
“You’re always going to have some people that simply do not know,” she said. “Some use their recycling cart as a trash cart when they run out of room in the brown cart.”
Christina Davis, a senior English and political science major who lives off campus, said she and her three roommates have been recycling since they moved into their house in May.
Davis and her roommates knew what materials to recycle, she said, because the city sent an information packet with their first water bill containing lists of acceptable and unacceptable material.
“Sometimes I forget, but it’s pretty easy to keep it separate,” Davis said. “We just have two trash cans right next to each other.”
In addition to information packets, the city has other education programs designed to inform residents about what does and does not belong in their blue bins, Schmitz said.
“We do presentations to students and adults,” she said. “Those are free and available year-round. Our Web site is a huge resource. We try and keep it up to date with lists of what you can and cannot put in the bins.”
Memphis, Tenn., a city similar to Fort Worth in size, uses comparable recycling methods and has been extremely successful with its program, said Jerry Collins Jr., the public works director for the city.
Collins said that, while only 40 percent of the city’s residents recycle regularly, about 9,500 tons of material are collected from curbside containers each week.
To encourage Memphis citizens to recycle, Collins said the city started a “recycling lottery.” Anyone who wants to enter can fill out a form, he said, and each week a resident’s form is drawn and their recycling bin checked. If the bin is full, the person wins $100.
“The names of the winners are published in the newspaper,” Collins said. “We have a couple of winners every week.”
Contamination is not a problem for the Memphis recycling program because the city accepts a wide variety of material, including newspapers, junk mail, tin cans, aluminum cans and a variety of plastic containers, Collins said.
“Our recyclables are among the cleanest in the country,” Collins said. “(Our citizens) do a good job, but we wish that more people would recycle.”
Although the lottery might be one way to encourage avid recycling, Davis said she thinks the information packets are the best way of educating people about acceptable recycling materials.
“I think the biggest problem is on campus, where no one knows what can and can’t be recycled,” she said. “They could put the package in the dorm room (so everyone would know). If everyone got the packet of information I don’t know why you wouldn’t do it.