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Michigan putting ‘Feet on the Street’ to improve recycling

Aim of state’s first-of-its-kind effort is to reduce amount of trash in recycling stream.

The Recycling Partnership
General Manager Mike Csapo inspects a load of recyclables to eliminate contaminated materials.

As an executive who directs one of Oakland County’s largest recycling programs, Mike Csapo should have been upset this fall to see piles of plastic bags stuffed with would-be recycled materials that were regularly tossed into the recycling dumpsters located at the Novi drop-off site he oversees.

Placing recyclables in plastic bags prevents materials from actually being recycled and poses health safety risks to his staff at the Resource Recovery and Recycling Authority of Southwest Oakland County (RRRASOC) facilities.

Yet Csapo wasn’t angry by what he saw. He was optimistic.

“I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest,” said Csapo, RRRASOC’s general manager. A nine-member municipal solid waste authority, RRRASOC represents a population of more than 284,000 residents in Farmington, Farmington Hills, Milford, Milford Township, Novi, South Lyon, Southfield, Walled Lake and Wixom.

Plastic bags are bad

New research shows plastic-bagged recyclables are the most common mistake made by Oakland County residents.

“We don’t break open those bags for safety reasons because we don’t know what’s in there, so we pull them from the recycling bins and then we dispose of them properly,” Csapo said. “When we did our analysis of what Oakland County residents are bringing to recycle at our drop-off sites in Novi and Southfield this summer, we learned that bagged recyclables are the most common mistake people make.”

 “That was good news for us,” Csapo added. “I believe that’s a relatively easy fix for us to inform people about, and I’m excited for RRRASOC to begin a comprehensive new education campaign with The Recycling Partnership that can get our residents to recycle more and better and will have a big impact in the communities we serve.”

New recycling collaborations

The Recycling Partnership is a national nonprofit that has teamed with RRRASOC and Iris Waste Diversion Specialists — a Saginaw-based, woman-owned small business — on what’s being called a first-of-its-kind project for Michigan and the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

The Recycling Partnership and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) are teaming up with Oakland County to reduce the amount of trash entering Michigan’s recycling stream.

The research-and-education campaign to combat recycling contamination and improve the capture of high-quality recyclables kicked off in August at RRRASOC’s public drop-off recycling facility in Novi and its Southfield processing facility.

Statewide, Michigan’s anti-contamination efforts with The Recycling Partnership and Iris rolled out this fall and will continue through the end of 2021. The projects are made possible by an $800,000 EGLE grant awarded to 14 grantees representing more than 100 communities and 300,000 households across the Great Lakes State.

“We are eager to continue our work with EGLE and our Michigan community partners to capture more quality recyclables that can be transformed into raw materials, creating a healthier and less wasteful planet, support jobs and promote stronger, healthier communities,” said Jill Martin, director of community programs at The Recycling Partnership.

Jill Martin.

“We know from experience that educating residents to recycle the correct way is key to creating and sustaining successful drop-off recycling programs for communities in southwest Oakland County and in every corner of Michigan.”

Recycling is more essential than ever

The new research-and-education activities come as Michigan and states across the U.S. are seeing significant increases in the volume of curbside recycling due to more Americans staying at and working from home to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

Now, more than ever, Michigan residents view recycling as an essential public service.

And during a time of social distancing when many nonessential employees are working remotely and commercial recycling is near an all-time low, producers see residential recycling programs as a critical supplier of manufacturing feedstock so more companies can make their products from recycled content instead of new materials. More cardboard, for example, is ending up in Michigan homes, and manufacturers statewide need that material to make new boxes.

“We are looking forward to partnering with more Michigan communities and The Recycling Partnership and building on this data-driven approach,” said Liz Browne, acting director of EGLE’s Materials Management Division.

“It’s more important than ever to communicate with the public in order to improve the quality of materials being recycled,” Browne said. “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.”

Putting ‘Feet on the Street’

In addition to expanding upon the success of Michigan’s national award-winning Know It Before You Throw It recycling education campaign, the communities will utilize The Recycling Partnership’s “Feet on the Street” cart-tagging program — a proven initiative to up the quality of curbside recycling by providing residents personalized and real-time education and feedback.

The nationally acclaimed Feet on the Street program is intended to increase the amount of quality recyclables — items that are accepted for recycling that are clean, empty and dry. Achieving that quality standard in recycled materials ensures they can circulate back into the system to become new products or packaging while also reducing the amount of nonrecyclables in recycling bins.

Feet on the Street includes a robust education and outreach strategy that involves a team of community-based observers — essentially a squad of “recycling detectives” — who will visit Michigan residents’ carts and provide tailored feedback on how to improve items that make it into them. The effort launched in Grand Rapids this fall and will grow across Michigan in spring 2021.

“We know Michiganders want to recycle the right way,” said Michigan Recycling Coalition Executive Director Kerrin O’Brien. “Through the Feet on the Street campaign, we can provide residents and businesses with customized immediate feedback to do just that.”

The Recycling Partnership has implemented the Feet on the Street program in more than 70 communities across the country, resulting in a 27% increase on average in the overall capture of quality recyclables, with some communities seeing as much as a 57% decrease of nonrecyclables in their recycling stream.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.