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Recycling in Atlanta: Curbside Recycling Improvement Leads to Less Contamination 

The City of Atlanta demonstrates the importance of investing in local sustainability efforts and building a resilient environmental team today to set up success for tomorrow, and years to come. 

A multi-year, $4 million-plus project with The Recycling Partnership, funded by The Coca-Cola Foundation, supported action to unlock environmental and economic benefits, expanding recycling access for residents, reducing the presence of non-recyclable items in the recycling stream, and improving the overall recycling system. The project focused on three key opportunities to improve recycling across the city:

  1. bolstering single-family curbside participation and reducing contamination, 
  2. expanding multifamily recycling opportunities, 
  3. improving university recycling education and infrastructure. 

These investments enabled the city to take the steps to create and sustain a holistic, ecosystem approach to better recycling across a city. For example, Atlanta reported a recycling contamination rate of 41% in 2017 – which means that many materials collected at the curb were unable to be recycled and by the end of this project, contamination dropped by 31%. Additionally, the recycling stream has yielded 14,000 new tons through the project. This recycling efficiency has countless environmental and system benefits.

“The Recycling Partnership worked side-by-side with Atlanta community stakeholders and city and public works officials to make recycling more convenient and accessible for all residents, increasing engagement in single-family and multifamily households, as well as expanding to a new area – institutions of higher education,” said Cody Marshall, Chief Community Strategy Officer for The Recycling Partnership. “We are so proud of the gains made in Atlanta and because of this work, we are thrilled to make available new data-driven campaigns and guides to help cities and towns across the country begin their sustainability journeys.”  

Atlanta is a microcosm of achievable, scalable system-wide improvement. Look no further than single-family recycling as the first stop on this journey.  

Access, Awareness, Education, and Engagement Transform Behavior

The Recycling Partnership’s relationship with Atlanta began in 2017, through a pilot of Feet on the Street, a nationally acclaimed recycling education and contamination reduction program that provides residents with customized, real-time feedback based on the contents of each household’s curbside recycling cart set at the curb. Through this program, carts observed with non-recyclable materials are labeled with “Oops Tags” that indicate which items contaminate the recycling stream and should be kept out of the cart, like plastic bags or food waste. The 2017 pilot with 5,000 Atlanta residents showed a 57% reduction in overall contamination and increased the amount of overall recyclable material by 27%. This pilot provided the road map for The Partnership and the city to scale Feet on the Street throughout the entire city. 

The 2019 Feet on the Street campaign kicked off the city-wide multi-year project. This iteration of Feet on the Street involved tagging (Oops Tags) at all 98,000-plus single-family households in the city. There is a data-driven element to Feet on the Street as well. The program utilizes an app to record the general types of contaminated materials (like plastic bags), ongoing participation rates, set out rates, and tagging rates to identify contamination issues on the ground to focus messaging directly to residents and triage issues. As a result of this feature, The Partnership and city could improve and strategically target material-specific outreach. In tandem, The Partnership and city also launched “Know What to Throw” a recycling education campaign to raise awareness of what items to recycle, and partnered with a local materials recovery facility (MRF) to provide checks on overall material quality. The Partnership’s research showed that Atlanta residents wanted to hear from their elected officials more than other thought leaders on this topic. Impressively, the recycling education campaign received 7.9 million impressions. 

A study commissioned by The Recycling Partnership in 2019 cataloged the results of Atlanta’s city-wide Feet on the Street through an audit halfway through the campaign. According to the study, crews surveyed and captured 125-pound samples from a total of 70 single-family recycling truckloads, hand sorting bagged material and unbagged material into 30 material categories. Results showed there was a 19% decrease in contamination for those recycling routes that had received the Feet on the Street campaign versus those that had not yet received the Feet on the Street tagging and education. 

As a result of the global pandemic, the plans for a 2020 Feet on the Street campaign were postponed but the program came back with a second round in 2021 with cart tagging at every single-family home in the city. The 2021 Feet on the Street introduced an approach to education by mailing residents information on the specific types of contamination occurring in their carts in addition to the Oops Tags. The recycling education and engagement campaign this time – “Better Together” – combined best practices in recycling participation and anti-contamination messaging from the 2019 campaign, receiving more than 4.3 million impressions.  

Overcoming Adversity with the Help of Creative Collaborations

The COVID-19 pandemic transformed lives, but it also tested our capacity to bounce back in challenging times. Waste and recycling workers have always been an essential workforce, but this was brought to the forefront during the pandemic, and they continued to show up and do their jobs despite the dangerous and uncertain conditions.  

In 2020, with Feet on the Street on hiatus, the city and The Partnership pivoted to take a hard look at Atlanta’s recycling infrastructure for single-family homes. The Partnership funded and provided technical and strategic assistance to continue to improve education, as well as to assess how to optimize recycling routes and improve fleet infrastructure to ensure more consistent recycling pick-up in turbulent times. Regular, reliable routes help residents trust the recycling system. The assessment led the city to increase its investment in an automatic side loader truck fleet for recycling, which makes for a more streamlined and safe recycling pick-up, as well as additional cost efficiencies.  

During this time, the city also ensured that glass, a previously problematic material in the city’s system, is now fully capable of being collected and processed for recycling curbside. With the help of The Partnership, the city of Atlanta was able to communicate the return of glass to the recycling stream in a way that continued to build consumer confidence and trust in the recycling system.  

Additionally, the city instituted new revenue share contracts for recycling, which will dramatically change the economics of recycling. With a new equitable contract in place involving commodity revenue share and a different rebate structure, in 2022 the city will now receive an estimated $1.1 million in rebate offsets from recycling which will feed back into supporting ongoing recycling allowing the city to make investments in equipment and solid waste routing software. 

“The collaboration between the city of Atlanta and The Recycling Partnership has been so powerful because it made us look at our recycling system holistically,” said Kanika Greenlee, Executive Director of the Keep Atlanta Beautiful Commission. “We looked at our education and outreach initiatives, we looked at our fleet and equipment and we looked at our contracts, in ways that we may have never been able to do before.” 

The Results  

The goal of the multi-year project was to increase recycling participation by 20% and decrease recycling contamination by 25%. As the project concludes, the contamination rate for single-family households has exceeded the goal, dropping by 31%. Additionally, there was a 20% increase in recycling participation, which correlates with an increase in quality recyclable material. For example, by 2022 the number of aluminum cans collected per week increased by 14%.

A key strategy to this work was decreasing the number of bagged recyclables. Items should be loose in a recycling cart as plastic bags can get tangled in recycling processing equipment and cause real problems. By the numbers, bagged recyclables made up 23% of the recycling stream in 2017 and 10% in 2019; today, only 5% of the stream contains bagged recyclables – this represents a nearly 80% decline. 

Looking to the Future

The Partnership’s collaboration with Atlanta was successful in part due to the city’s willingness to commit to improving its curbside recycling system. The Atlanta single-family curbside project showcased the determination of the city and improved recycling for all. 

Through public-private partnerships like this, The Recycling Partnership works to ensure people can recycle, that they do recycle, and that the infrastructure is in place to support communities today, and into the future. Programming will look different based on a community’s needs, resources, and programming, but one constant remains: The Recycling Partnership will meet communities where they are. 

Start your community’s recycling transformation with these available free tools and resources or reach out to The Recycling Partnership’s Community Engagement Team to explore available grants and technical assistance at Contact. 

The story of Atlanta’s curbside recycling program transformation is the first in a three-part series outlining the recent success of the city’s recycling evolution aided by a multi-year $4 million+ grant from The Recycling Partnership with financial support from The Coca-Cola Foundation. From increasing participation and education in its curbside recycling program to furthering equity and access in university and multifamily recycling, explore how these initiatives can work in communities nationwide.