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Recycling Education, Outreach Wins Big, Decreases Contamination in District of Columbia

With signature red and yellow “Do Not Bag Recyclables” signage, the District of Columbia Department of Public Works (DC DPW) gets to play recycling referee to ensure the cleanest recycling stream.

Here’s the simple but effective message – leave items loose and empty, and most importantly, do not bag recyclables.

Blake Adams, manager of DC DPW’s Office of Waste Diversion, highlighted the signage – and his love for soccer – during the virtual 2022 Resource Recycling Conference (RRC) Program of the Year award ceremony in August. The virtual ceremony provided an opportunity to highlight innovative programs and connect in advance of the 2022 Resource Recycling Conference in Austin, Texas. The District earned the recognition of the Large City Program of the Year Award due to its multi-faceted contamination and recycling education campaign in collaboration with The Recycling Partnership. As a result of this work, contamination dropped from 33% in 2017 to 11% in 2021 – a remarkable achievement.

Since 2014, the District of Columbia has pursued zero waste sustainability goals. Mayor Muriel Bowser has an ambitious zero waste goal of 80% waste diversion, with Zero Waste DC leading this work. According to the District, a strong residential recycling program is critical to this plan. The Recycling Partnership has been a partner since 2017, providing two grants to help enhance the District’s residential recycling program.

“When we work together, we win together,” said Adams in reflection. “We want to build an equitable model where everyone has recycling access and understands how to recycle right. The Recycling Partnership helped us make incredible strides toward that goal, and we continue to work toward building a zero waste future.”

Leveraging Strategic Education to Move Recycling Behaviors

The District’s recycling program has advanced through the years, but like many local programs, it still faces challenges. For one, the materials recovery facility that sorts recyclables (which is outside of city limits) holds the city accountable for recycling contamination, like plastic bags or food waste (e.g., any items that cannot be sorted and collected and as such mess up the recycling stream). Contamination costs were increasing, Adams shared, which prompted action. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic compounded challenges. During the Resource Recycling Conference’s virtual award ceremony, Adams shared that in early 2020 and most of 2021, single-family household recycling and waste increased by 8-12%. That increase in material, plus the pandemic, put additional pressure on staff and city services but even so, services never ceased or scaled down. In fact, the city doubled down to address these issues, conducting The Recycling Partnership’s flagship Feet on the Street program throughout 2021.

About 702,000 residents call the District of Columbia home. DC DPW provides services to approximately 105,000 single-family households, collecting about 34,000 tons of recyclables annually. Feet on the Street, The Partnership’s recycling quality improvement program specifically targets curbside collection at single-family homes. Feet on the Street centers on real-time, personalized feedback on items placed in recycling carts. Staff will inspect carts and provide “Oops Tags” so residents know what items are accepted and which ones need to stay out of the recycling cart. As part of the strategy, residents will receive warnings and sometimes even no cart pick-ups to encourage better recycling behaviors – that’s where that red (no pick-up) and yellow (warning) signage comes into play.

Phase 1 of Feet on the Street in the District from March to May 2021 covered 17,107 households – about 16% of all single-family homes. Contamination dropped from 18% to 13% during that time. Phase 2, which ran from September to October 2021 and reached about 6,400 households, had even more significant results, decreasing contamination from 13% to 7%. These two rounds of cart tagging and educational outreach continued despite pandemic-related staffing capacity challenges, and the city incorporated geo-location mobile software so staff could be better informed on-the-ground and track household recycling data.

In 2021, the District also rolled out the “Do Not Bag Recyclables” campaign to all 105,000 single-family households, providing mailers that clearly delineated the types of recyclables accepted in the system from metal and paper to rigid plastic, and more. This was in conjunction with the launch of an interactive, digital ArcGIS story map, which provides guidance on the materials the District currently accepts in addition to transparently sharing what happens after recyclables are collected by truck.

Simultaneously with the single-family work, the District created a multifamily toolkit for property owners, managers, custodial staff, and residents. Multifamily apartment buildings, any dwelling larger than duplex and triplex housing in the city, have services through commercial providers. Since about two-thirds of all District residents live in multifamily housing, this outreach was critical to increase recycling awareness and education. The toolkit included information on multifamily recycling requirements, how to select a service vendor, how to communicate with residents, how to empower staff, videos, and more. The D.C. Department of Public Works also shared reusable recycling bags and recycling magnets so building managers could provide them to residents.

Lessons Learned to Inform Future Innovation

Even amid challenges, the District of Columbia’s recycling program achieved success. Today, the recycling rate is between 50-60%.

One of the most interesting observations, noted by Adams of the D.C. Department of Public Works’ Office of Waste Diversion, was the positive community response to the recycling contamination and outreach campaign. The community was responsive to the accountability, and it even drove somewhat of a competition to have the cleanest recycling. The city still has challenges with hard-to-recycle or bulky materials Adams shared, but there is undeniable progress and a hunger for change.

As with any recycling initiative, the work in the District of Columbia continues. Trust and transparency are still obstacles, said Adams. The Partnership’s research, most recently through its inaugural Recycling Confidence Index, shows the importance of instilling confidence in community programs so people can trust that their recycling program works and that they are confident in their own recycling habits. Investing in outreach and education is critical to build and sustain confidence, which in turn helps encourage consistent and accurate recycling behaviors. For the District that investment paid dividends. Now, the District of Columbia is looking toward 2023 when DC DPW’s Office of Waste Diversion plans to release its Zero Waste DC Plan, which will lay out a path to achieve the District’s zero waste, sustainability, and climate goals.

From tackling plastic waste to carbon emissions, many local governments have embraced the idea of environmental equity, so we can all live, work, and play in healthy, sustainable communities today and for years to come. Ready to take your community recycling program to the next level? Let’s connect and explore how your community can transform recycling and create a robust, sustainable system.

2022 RRC Program of the Year

Adams (right) accepted the Program of the Year award from RRC’s Dan Leif (left, RRC). Photo credit to meetbigwave.com.

Header photo courtesy of the District of Columbia Department of Public Works