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Updated Report: The West Coast Contamination Initiative: Results from California, Oregon, and Washington

By Asami Tanimoto

UPDATE: Upon receiving feedback from area stakeholders and further review, we removed two references to a contamination rate reported in the Portland metro region that resulted from a generation study of single-family households co-funded by The Recycling Partnership. It was decided that the sample size and methodology of that study should not be used in comparison to the data from a larger, more robust study done by the Metro regional government released in 2015. 

“Oh, the West Coast is different!” We hear that a lot across the United States when we talk about California, Oregon, and Washington’s recycling programs. These states are environmentally conscious, so does that mean they recycle more and/or better?

We at The Recycling Partnership wanted to know the answer, so we asked!

As with our 2019 State of Curbside Recycling Survey with results published in The Recycling Partnership’s 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report, we asked how curbside recycling works in these three states. In addition to the communities, however, for this report, we also surveyed other stakeholders – material recovery facilities (MRFs) and residents – so we had more perspectives on the programs and their effectiveness at large. By the end of our data collection, we surveyed 212 cities, 98 MRFs, and almost 3,000 people across the West Coast. The results of these surveys and interviews with recycling stakeholders in California, Oregon, and Washington are available in our 2019 West Coast Contamination Initiative Research Report.

“There is very limited research on residential recycling across the country and, too often, anecdotal stats are quoted and reported,” said Cody Marshall, The Recycling Partnership’s Chief Community Strategy Officer. “We feel that doing this research, and making it public and transparent, will allow people to better inform their recycling program decision. I encourage community program managers to dig into the research in the Addendum to start uncovering the best way to inform their residents on how they might work with their neighboring communities to collaborate on solutions for better quality recyclables.”

Prior to 2018, recyclables were often exported to China in shipping containers that would have otherwise returned to China empty. Losing the China market lead to the subsequent market downturn for commodities like mixed paper and significantly affected recycling programs in these states.

With markets pinched, impacts from contamination in the curbside stream become even more significant costly. We’ve estimated that contamination is costing the U.S. recycling system more than $300 million each year. That cost gets passed down from the processors to the haulers, the communities, and ultimately the residents and puts a strain on the entire recycling system.

From our West Coast Contamination Initiative, we learned that contamination issues on the West Coast are not unlike the pain points many programs are feeling across the country. But these states can take advantage of the existing strong recycling culture and reduce their contamination from the residential recycling stream through:

  • More program-level data tracking to identify outreach needs and evaluate progress;
  • Better collaboration between stakeholders – local programs, haulers, MRFs, and state agencies;
  • Clear, specific, and consistent messaging to residents to reduce confusion; and
  • Further financial and technical assistance to support community programs.

Read the report to find out more about the surveys and focus groups on the West Coast along with the challenges and opportunities faced in these states.

The West Coast Contamination Initiative was made possible in part by funding from Amazon and Keurig Dr. Pepper.

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