The city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is partnering with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, to introduce a communitywide project aimed at improving the quality of materials residents recycle in their curbside carts. According to a news release from the city of Grand Rapids, the city is launching The Recycling Partnership’s Feet on the Street cart-tagging recycling campaign mid-September with communitywide education and outreach initiatives continuing through mid-November.

The city says the Feet on the Street program is intended to increase the amount of quality recyclables in order to ensure these materials can be circulated back into the recycling system to become new products or packaging while also reducing the amount of nonrecyclables in recycling bins. The program helps 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.

The city states that this new effort will improve the quality of recycling in single-stream curbside recycling bins by providing Grand Rapids’ roughly 55,000 households with personalized and real-time curbside recycling education and feedback. The city is providing a $15,000 matching grant to support the campaign.

“Recycling is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, and this program furthers our strategic priority of health and environment,” says James Hurt, managing director of public services for the city of Grand Rapids. “This helps us minimize waste generation and promote waste diversion practices by improving the quality and amount of recycling we collect. We know our residents want to recycle the right way. Through the Feet on the Street campaign, we can provide them customized immediate feedback to do just that.”

Feet on the Street includes a comprehensive education and outreach strategy that involves a team of community-based observers who will visit each Grand Rapids resident’s cart and provide tailored feedback on how to improve items that make it into the cart. Residents will receive postcards in the mail from the city announcing the campaign’s kickoff. The postcards will include information on the program in English and Spanish and informs residents that Feet on the Street representatives will visit neighborhoods on scheduled recycling pickup days over a three-month span. According to the city, the representatives will open recycling carts, review their content and leave behind a tag with personalized feedback to help residents recycle better.

“The Feet on the Street program works by giving residents instant feedback on what is and is not recyclable,” says Jill Martin, director of community programs at The Recycling Partnership. “Through this personalized and real-time feedback loop, we are going to help the city of Grand Rapids capture more quality recyclables that can then be transformed into new materials, creating and supporting jobs, a less wasteful planet and stronger, healthier communities.”

Over the past few years, the city has seen an increase in the amount of contaminated recyclables in bins throughout Grand Rapids, Hurt says. Historically, the contamination rate in the recycling stream averaged between 8 percent and 10 percent, which was considered acceptable by the Kent County Recycling Center. However, in recent years, the contamination rate has increased by 12 percent to 15 percent, Hurt says.

“Material should be empty and dry and practically free of any contaminants, including food and liquids, which can prevent recyclables from being recovered and turned into new products,” Hurt says.

Placing nonrecyclables in the recycling cart means haulers may be forced to redirect loads containing too many nonrecyclables to the Kent County Waste to Energy Facility. According to a news release from the city of Grand Rapids, the city’s public works department has an enforcement policy that allows it to remove carts from customers who routinely fill their recycling cart with non-recyclables or contaminated materials. This practice, however, has not reduced the amount of contamination in Grand Rapids’ recycling system, Hurt says.

The goal of the Feet on the Street project is to reduce the percentage of contamination and educate residents on how to recycle correctly. With many workers across the country working remotely and commercial recycling near an all-time low due to the COVID-19 pandemic, producers see residential recycling programs as a critical part in the manufacturing supply chain so they can make their products from recycled content instead of new materials.

“We’re excited about this project,” Hurt concludes. “We see it as a great opportunity to help improve the recycling resource stream through much-needed public education on the benefits of recycling correctly.”

The Feet on the Street initiative aligns with EGLE’s “Know It Before You Throw It” recycling education campaign featuring the Recycling Raccoon Squad the city says. The effort promotes best practices and emphasizes that recycling materials saves energy, reduces water use, decreases greenhouse gases, conserves resources and translates into local jobs.

“We are looking forward to partnering with Michigan communities and The Recycling Partnership on this data-driven approach,” says 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. 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.”

According to a statement from the city of Grand Rapids, The Recycling Partnership has implemented the Feet on the Street program in 70 communities across the country, resulting in average 27 percent increases in the overall capture of quality recyclables with some communities seeing as much as a 57 percent decrease of nonrecyclables in their recycling stream.

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