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Small Town Residential Recycling Improvements Aid Big Changes for Environment

What do piles of bulky waste in residential Ohio, the shore towns in Atlantic County, New Jersey, and billboards in Indiana have in common? They’re all part of The Recycling Partnership’s work to enhance recycling in small and rural communities across the United States.

Recycling should be possible for all communities, no matter the size or geographic location. Whether a community has 1,000 residents or 1 million, The Recycling Partnership (The Partnership) meets communities where they are to provide curbside recycling carts, improve drop-off recycling locations, upgrade equipment at materials recovery facilities (MRFs), or implement educational programs to improve the quality and value of recycling streams. Collectively, small towns can have a real impact and they have great needs. Regardless of urban or rural setting, an individual U.S. household generates an average of 767 pounds of recyclable material per year – that’s almost as much as the weight of a small horse. Actions to recycle – no matter where people live, work, and play – make a difference for our planet by reducing carbon emissions, preserving natural resources, diverting valuable materials from landfills, cleaning up our waterways, and so much more.

Since The Partnership’s beginning, collaboration with small and rural communities has been important. Nearly half of the communities The Partnership has worked in have been small towns. This work has been a collaborative effort propelled by communities and public-private partnerships, including the recently announced Small Town Access Fund, to help make recycling easy and convenient for all and deliver countless economic and environmental benefits. Small and rural community recycling programs can face distinct challenges with staff resources, tight finances, education and program maintenance, and occasional challenges associated with access to material processing. Overall, there are more than 18,000 incorporated municipalities with less than 50,000 residents in the United States. That’s more than 27 million households. There’s certainly more work to be done, but there are many small-town strategies that produce big residential recycling gains.

From Trash to Treasured Recyclables in Ohio

Imagine taking your pup for a walk around the block and passing piles upon piles of bagged trash, furniture, mattresses, and other miscellaneous items on the sidewalk and curb. For residents of Whitehall, Ohio, that was a typical scene. Prior waste and curbside recycling services for the community of about 20,000 residents missed the mark. According to the town, there was a lack of standard carts and no incentive to recycle or reduce waste.

Working with The Partnership and the local Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO), Whitehall transitioned households to a volume-based fee for trash and no cost for residential recycling. This way, trash fees were treated the same as other utilities, like electricity, where the more you use, the more you pay. To make this transition happen, the town received a residential curbside recycling cart grant from The Partnership and a grant from SWACO. As a result, Whitehall only paid a fraction of the cart price, which was much more affordable than taking on the entire cost of recycling program and cart implementation. These collaborations to lower cart costs vary by community, and The Partnership prioritizes working closely with local stakeholders on the ground to find the best path forward for local municipalities. Going further, outreach educated residents about the materials accepted for the community’s recycling program and what to avoid (don’t bag recyclables!) as well as the new fee structure and timeline for the delivery of new curbside 65-gallon recycling carts. As a result, the town reports that recycling participation increased from 26% to 95% and weekly recyclable materials collection doubled. Costs are more manageable for residents (the community is predominately low to moderate income), neighborhoods are cleaner, and this is a much more impactful recycling program.

Carts for All in an Indiana Community

Similarly, The Partnership helped residents of Lawrenceburg, Indiana move from a bimonthly opt-in recycling program with bins to weekly collection with universal carts. Universal carting is one of the great drivers of equity, providing every household with the equal opportunity to recycle; opt-in programs create barriers to participation. In this small town of about 5,000 people, state funding for recycling fell through, so a grant from The Partnership provided critical technical, programming, and educational support.  The program rolled out about 1,600 new 95-gallons carts, which provided 1,200 new households with their first opportunity to recycle and replaced the 18-gallon recycling totes that were used previously. The town’s communications team was committed to getting the word out about the new program, using public kiosk and regular billboards and town hall-style meetings in addition to more traditional communications methods like radio and digital ads. Communication also included an information packet with a welcome letter, acceptable materials sheet, and FAQs about the recycling service. The town mayor and municipal staff were extremely engaged throughout the entire process, which helped make implementation smooth.

“We often talk about pushing for recycling equity. That’s a big-picture term with a really simple meaning – we want everyone to be able to be able to recycle, no matter where they live,” said Rob Taylor, Senior Director of Grants and Community Development with The Recycling Partnership. “The Recycling Partnership’s work with small communities is always evolving, and we continue to meet folks where they are to get things done. We are grateful for the financial support of partners to kickstart this important workstream and look forward to continued collaboration as we enhance recycling community by community.”

Bolstering Regional Recycling in New Jersey

The story of Absecon, New Jersey, a small community of about 9,100 near the shore, provides a snapshot into how small community recycling programs can bring even more regional success in tonnage and participation. The town of Absecon moved from recycling bins to larger carts, and this work also coincided with other carting efforts in this part of New Jersey including Millville, Beach Haven, Ventnor, and Vineland.  Along the way, The Partnership has worked closely with strong local partners like Atlantic County Utilities Authority (ACUA) to facilitate various carting and service delivery projects and additionally, a local materials recovery facility Mazza Recycling has been increasing their capacity to collect and sort polypropylene plastic thanks to a grant by The Partnership’s Polypropylene Recycling Coalition. Additional collection and processing capacity provides opportunities to increase messaging on new and acceptable household recyclable materials.

During the Absecon project, the community saw fewer plastic wraps and bags in their recycling carts in part due to real-time feedback for residents. So far this year, the updated collection process and education brought in 36 additional tons for Absecon; when combined with other projects in the region, that is an estimated 1,400 tons collected or more than 3 million pounds of new recyclables annually. These collective efforts across communities make big changes; every improvement program, every cart tagged, every moment with a resident all count in small communities and The Partnership is uniquely qualified to lead these efforts.

Recycling Education Countywide in Michigan

Over in Michigan, there’s a similar story of small communities coming together. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) is committed to improving the state’s recycling rate, with the goal of increasing it to 30% by 2025 and has partnered with The Recycling Partnership on a variety of initiatives. A recent grant in Alpena County was part of a statewide initiative that has brought recycling education, infrastructure, and outreach support to more than 150 communities across Michigan. The Alpena project focused on improving recycling education and engagement with the county’s drop-off recycling program to decrease contamination. Drop-off programs are often more common than curbside programs in rural areas that have lower population density.  The county’s 10 total drop-off sites serve more than 16,000 households as about 28,000 residents call Alpena County home. Direct engagement at three drop-off sites was provided to enhance the quality of recycling and reduce contamination. In addition to resident education, the program incorporated a training element so local drop-off center staffers could better sort and track contaminated materials like plastic bags – becoming in a sense, “recycling detectives.” The training helped inform direct-to-resident education to all residents on acceptable materials.

Community recycling improvement programs, whether for 10,000 residents or 500,000 residents, have a ripple effect, and the work continues. Still in 2022, 40% of Americans lack convenient recycling access. Work in both small and large communities helps deliver economic and environmental benefits and closes equity and access gaps.

Is your community next?  Interested in improving recycling in your community regardless of size? Contact The Recycling Partnership to learn more about opportunities to transform small and rural recycling programs.