Opt-In Recycling Programs Being Tested as Replacement Programs

A couple of years back, Cleveland joined the ranks of other American cities in abandoning its residential recyclingprogram. Prohibitive costs doomed the program when local government decided spending the money was no longer justified. But now the city is embarking on a brand new residential recycling effort. What is different this time? The program is voluntary. People opt-in of their own accord.

Opt-in recycling programs are popping up all around the country. They are being hailed as the most effective replacement for failed mandatory recycling programs. Whether or not they ultimately work remains to be seen. But so far, so good – at least in Cleveland.

1. Too Much Contamination

Cleveland’s original residential recycling program suffered from excessive contamination. That is ultimately what killed it. Simply put, mandatory recycling programs require people to collect recyclables in curbside bins whether they want to or not. Those bins are put out with their trash on a weekly basis.

Because the program is not voluntary, there are enough people not taking the time to do it right to create contamination problems. When loads are contaminated, they cost municipalities more money because they need to be put back on a truck and taken to the landfill.

In Cleveland, the former recycling effort had a contamination rate of about 60%. That is a lot. Every contaminated load meant more money being spent by the city to deal with it. And the costs went beyond just transporting contaminated loads to landfills.

2. Mucking Up the Machinery

Certain types of contaminants are bad because they muck up the machinery. Plastic grocery bags are a good example, which is why so few recyclers accept them. Every time a plastic bag gets wrapped around a piece of machinery it has the potential to bring the entire production line to a halt. That wastes money. In addition, money needs to be spent getting the machine back in service again.

It boils down to people not following the rules. Either they don’t know the rules, they do not care about following them, or they are purposely trying to be a pain in the backside. Either way, mandatory recycling programs rarely produce the desired results. Cleveland and other cities are hoping the opt-in replacement will.

3. It Works in Industry

Opting into recycling isn’t so farfetched. In fact, the voluntary nature of recycling industrial scrap plastic is one of the principles that makes it so financially viable. Companies recycle because they want to. And because they want to, they make the effort to do it right.

Companies in seven states including Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee, and Indiana can sell their scrap plastic to a company known as Seraphim Plastics. Seraphim doesn’t collect any residential plastics, just the industrial stuff. Customers are required to sort and clean materials before the company picks them up. In exchange, Seraphim actually pays them for their plastic waste.

Seraphim doesn’t have to deal with contaminated loads. They do not have to worry about their machinery getting mucked up or having to take loads to the landfill because they don’t pass muster. Whenever they pick up a load, they know they will be able to use it. They know that recycling it will be successful.

Opt-in residential recycling is based on the same principle. Volunteers clean and separate plastics before they are collected. Contamination is minimized while efficiency is maximized. It seems to be working in Cleveland right now, but the program is still in its initial stages. Time will tell if the program offers long term financial viability. If it does, how many other cities will follow suit?

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