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How Sheboygan Successfully Transformed Its Recycling Program During a Pandemic

Despite the Challenges of the COVID-19 Health Crisis, Sheboygan Transitioned to a Cart-Based Recycling Program and Increased Its Recycling Tonnage Nearly 20%

Few can claim 2020 was their year – that is with at least one exception. Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which transformed its recycling program amid a global pandemic, started a cart-based automated recycling program. With the assistance of a $277,500 grant from The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit leading the transition to a circular economy in the U.S., the City of Sheboygan transitioned from bagged recycling to 95-gallon lidded recycling carts and started a new citywide collection service in May 2020. This allowed for both the collection of more recyclable material and to protect the health and safety of sanitation workers in the City.

Now, less than a year into its new recycling service, the City has already seen measurable gains in recycling. The City is anticipating the collection of 550 additional tons (equivalent to the size of 11 adult whales) of recyclables in the first year of automated service, avoiding costly processing fees associated with bagged recycling, reducing risk of harm to City workers, keeping more valuable recyclables out of landfills, supporting local jobs, and providing valuable supplies for packaging producers to make their new products out of recycled content.

How It Started

Sheboygan was one of the last communities in Wisconsin left collecting recycling in plastic bags. Bagged recyclables can lead to increased processing costs, recycling not being found in the bags and instead potentially going to landfills, and possible impacts on worker health, safety, and service continuity — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. To increase the resilience of recycling services, as well as the capture of high-quality recyclables in Sheboygan, The Recycling Partnership awarded the City a grant of $277,500 to help purchase new large, wheeled recycling carts for its residential recycling program to facilitate the move to automated collection and provide recycling outreach and education to all 18,181 single-family households. Through the City’s Safer, Cleaner, and Greener campaign, Sheboygan also purchased seven new, fully automated, side-load collection trucks and trash and recycling carts for their entire community, creating a more efficient, safer, contactless operation while diverting more material from the landfill.

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sheboygan knew the importance of maintaining its recycling program as a valuable public service and an essential service for the U.S. manufacturing supply chain. But the City felt the full impact of the pandemic on their front-line essential workers, especially as those workers hand-collected bags of trash and recycling from every home, every week. The community clearly depended on City staff to maintain waste and recycling collection, especially as residents were generating more waste and recycling while staying safe at home.

After much collaboration with The Recycling Partnership regarding the safety of residents and staff and the immediate need for automation, curbside recycling carts for automated recycling collection were delivered on schedule, and with enhanced health and safety protocols during the COVID-19 health crisis. With residents spending more time at home, the City and Partnership staff quickly pivoted away from the usual out-of-home education campaign tactics that accompany a new recycling cart rollout, including banners in public buildings, billboards, and signs on trucks, to include more social media posts and videos, as well as standard mailed educational pieces, customized by The Recycling Partnership to ensure that community members saw the information and adopted to the new collection practices. 

How It’s Going

With the new 18,181 curbside recycling carts delivered in April and automated collection beginning on May 4, 2020, Sheboygan successfully eased the prior burden placed on front line workers and increased citywide recycling tonnage by more than 12% in just two months.

The City’s cart-based collection service also reduced worker contact with bagged material and decreased their risk of injury that results from continued bending and lifting.

Sheboygan’s transition from bagged recycling to curbside recycling carts reduced costs, while increasing the collection of valuable recyclables by more than 15% per household per year. This recycling transformation sets up the City’s recycling program for more efficient and effective operations in the future.

“By transforming Sheboygan’s recycling program and improving the quality of materials we’re capturing and recycling, residents across the city are contributing to saving energy, reducing water usage, decreasing greenhouse gases, conserving our natural resources, and creating local jobs,” said Mayor Mike Vandersteen of the City of Sheboygan.

 Recycling Program Impact

According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, recycling in Wisconsin generates more than $4.5 billion in economic impact, including $1.2 billion in wages, $471 million in tax revenue, and supports more than 20,200 jobs. The recyclable materials collected by programs like Sheboygan’s become valuable and essential feedstock for manufacturing, including cardboard boxes, toilet paper, and packaging for supplies, all critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sheboygan’s transition to automated collection reduced the need for two to three person crews, which was critical to maintaining uninterrupted service during the pandemic. This transition also allowed for an audit to improve curbside waste and recycling routes. Department of Public Works (DPW) staff worked closely with the building inspectors, the City Assessor’s Office, geographic information systems (GIS) professionals, and the Water Utility to get updated household counts, verify households serviced by DPW, and update more than 400 listed addresses, including improper assessments and charges.

Not only did the City increase their recycling tonnage, the transition to a cart-based program decreased the amount of trash in the recycling due to educating community members on what is and is not accepted by the recycling program. A transition from bagged recycling has been shown to increase the capture of quality recyclables while decreasing costs like seen in Sheboygan.

Sheboygan’s recycling transformation became the catalyst for two other Wisconsin cities – Kenosha and Milwaukee. By awarding nearly $1.5 million in grant dollars since 2020, The Recycling Partnership has placed more than 68,000 new curbside recycling carts in three of Wisconsin’s four largest cities. The collective granting initiatives reached more than 830,000 community members and are expected to capture nearly 32 million pounds of recyclables that can then be made into new packaging and products.

Transforming Recycling for Good

The Recycling Partnership’s Residential Curbside Recycling Cart Grant Program advances recycling through financial and technical assistance and implementation of best management practices, helping offset capital needs to catalyze recycling in communities nationwide. Cart-based recycling programs result in program cost savings, stability, better public service, and increased worker safety, and the increased recovery of quality recyclables.

Since its inception, The Recycling Partnership has supported more than 2,000 communities, reached 91 million households, placed 976,000 recycling carts, diverted 338 million pounds of recyclables from landfills, and avoided 378,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. When it was awarded in 2020, Sheboygan’s recycling cart grant was the largest for The Recycling Partnership and was soon eclipsed by Omaha’s award of 235,000 recycling carts in late 2020.

Sheboygan’s Residential Curbside Recycling Cart Grant was awarded as part of the All In On Recycling challenge, in conjunction with The PepsiCo Foundation. The challenge was started to make recycling easier for 25 million American families by providing them with the resources they need to recycle more.

“Sheboygan demonstrates that recycling transformation builds resiliency,” said Jill Martin, Director of Community Programs at The Recycling Partnership. “By fully transitioning to automated, cart-based curbside collection in the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City was able to ensure uninterrupted service continuity for more than 18,000 households.”

The City of Sheboygan and The Recycling Partnership were recently recognized for their national recycling transformation best practices in the United States Conference of Mayors Business Council Best Practice Report: Mayors and Businesses Driving Economic Growth. The report highlighted Recycling Automation for a Safer, Cleaner, Greener Sheboygan and was recently released as part of United States Conference of Mayor’s virtual Annual Winter Meeting. It features a best practice case study of the recycling improvements made by the City of Sheboygan last year with support from The Partnership.

Learn more about how your community can apply for a grant from The Partnership here.