Feet on the Street program positively reinforces proper recycling in Washtenaw
Karen Kurcz takes pride not only in recycling but also in doing it right.
The Scio Township resident welcomed the news that a team of community-based observers would be walking the neighborhoods of Washtenaw County this summer to provide tailored feedback on how residents might improve their curbside recycling habits.
“I worry about the planet I’m leaving,” Kurcz said of her motivation for recycling. “I’m kind of anxious about what they’ll face in the future. You can’t do enough to protect the environment.”
And part of that, she understands, is ensuring that what she puts in her curbside bin for pickup is indeed recyclable — which is exactly the goal of the Feet on the Street program that launched June 21 in seven Washtenaw County communities.
Developed by the national nonprofit The Recycling Partnership, the program is intended to help communities achieve economically efficient recycling programs, reduce the number of new resources used in packaging by providing more recycled content for new products, and improve the cleanliness of communities.
As part of its statewide recycling quality improvement efforts, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) is offering grants to every Michigan community to implement the Feet on the Street program.
Since last fall, more than 100 Michigan communities representing over 300,000 households statewide have requested funding support from EGLE totaling $800,000 in individual grants. The Recycling Partnership is also accepting applications for a new round of EGLE-funded grants totaling $500,000 to help communities improve their curbside or drop-off recycling programs.
The first batch of Feet on the Street awards included $118,605 for the Washtenaw Regional Resource Management Authority (WRRMA), which beyond Scio Township, consists of Ann Arbor Township, Dexter, Saline, Scio Township, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.
“We started the solid waste authority in 2019 with the first goal being education and outreach, so Feet on the Street was ideal for us,” said Theo Eggermont, WRRMA manager. “That’s what the communities were looking for — education about recycling.”
And education is exactly what Feet on the Street promises to deliver.
For four to eight weeks — depending on recycling pickup schedules — starting June 21, about a dozen observers clad in reflective vests were slated to inspect bins of recyclables residents of each WRRMA community placed at their curbside for collection.
The observers — essentially “recycling detectives” employed by Leadpoint, which provides recycling and waste services — were looking for such no-no’s as recyclables stored in plastic bags, plastic bags or film itself placed in bins and food contamination.
“They just look at the top and use that as a perspective for what kind of materials are in the cart,” said Cassandra Ford, community program coordinator for The Recycling Partnership.
Observers place an orange warning tag on bins containing problematic materials that explains how households can improve their recycling. If the same household is found to have an issue a second time, it receives a red tag and its materials are not collected that week.
Initial reaction to the Feet on the Street feedback was overwhelmingly positive, Eggermont said.
“We’ve had a number of calls from people seeking more info, and they’re excited about it,” he said. “Everyone wants to recycle in the right way.”
Such interactions are a chance to reinforce recycling rules, Eggermont said.
For example, bagged recyclables are troublesome because they pose a danger to recycling facility workers, who can’t tell what’s inside and therefore just throw the bags away. The bags themselves and other types of plastic film can clog recycling machinery and therefore aren’t generally recyclable curbside, although many local retailers will collect the material in drop-off bins at their stores. And items contaminated by food, such as greasy pizza boxes, are not recyclable and can contaminate a whole load of other recyclables.
Kurcz was already aware of those rules, so her recycling bin easily passed initial Feet on the Street inspection. She also knows to check with her local provider about what is recyclable in her community.
“I keep a flier right by the back door for reference,” she said.
That’s the type of habit that Feet on the Street has successfully promoted in communities nationwide, Ford said.
“It opens up that line of communication with the resident and corrects the behavior,” she said, adding that municipalities nationwide have seen recycling contamination rates drop by 25% to 45% as a result of Feet on the Street.
A similar improvement could help WRRMA negotiate more favorable material handling contracts in the future, saving taxpayers money, Eggermont said.
The Feet on the Street initiative also aligns with EGLE’s “Know It Before You Throw It” recycling education campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoon Squad. The campaign is promoting best practices and emphasizes that recycling materials saves energy, reduces water use, decreases greenhouse gases, conserves resources and translates into local jobs.
“It’s more important than ever to communicate with the public in order to improve the quality of materials being recycled,” said Liz Browne, director of EGLE’s Materials Management Division. “We all have a role to play in helping businesses get materials to make the essential products Michigan needs for our economic recovery from COVID-19, such as toilet paper, food containers and shipping boxes.”
More information about how recycling benefits Michigan’s environment and economy is available at RecyclingRaccoons.org.