Toys. Hubcaps. Strollers. Planters. Styrofoam. Dish mats. Coolers. Blinds. And lots and lots of plastic bags.
None of this stuff is recyclable in Elgin, yet it all showed up in residential recycling bins picked up by Waste Management, which contracts with the city for refuse services.
In an effort to the curb the problem of so called "recycling contamination, " the city is partnering with Waste Management to educate residents with the ultimate goal of ensuring long-term refuse costs don't take a hit, Elgin senior management analyst Dan Ault said. "We're trending the wrong way, " Ault said. "It's not so much that it's terrible, but if you don't do an intervention, it will be at some point - because it's getting worse."
The city is promoting Waste Management's "Recycle Often. Recycle Right" campaign on its website and via social media. There are main tips: First, recycle all bottles, cans and paper. Second, keep items clean and dry. And third, no plastic bags.
The city is also training its 311 operators to accurately answer questions about recycling; future initiatives could include citywide mailers and "leave behind" tags with specific feedback about non-recyclable items spotted by recycling truck operators, he said. Those costs would be borne by Waste Management, he added. "Ultimately our responsibility is to deliver the service, so we felt we have a role in this."
Recycling contamination is a common issue across the country, and Elgin is the first in Illinois to engage in an education pilot partnership with Waste Management, company representatives said.
"Recycling used to be relatively simple - newspaper, bottles and cans, " spokeswoman Lisa Disbrow said. "But there has been such change in consumer packaging. There are more types of plastics and other materials that have made recycling more difficult and more complicated."
Contamination increases business costs, as employees have to manually discard items and machinery wears out or even breaks down when plastic bags, hoses and the like get tangled up, she said.
There is a difference between what is recyclable and what your city's recycling company can take in, Disbrow said. Plastic bags are a prime example - they cannot be recycled by Waste Management, but they can be recycled at stores such as Wal-Mart, Meijer, Jewel-Osco and Target.
Elgin's Sustainability Commission briefly discussed the viability of a plastic bag ban in Elgin, but opted first to monitor the effects of a ban enacted Aug. 1 in Chicago, Commissioner Mitch Jacobs said. Meanwhile, the city will look into ways to encourage residents to use fewer plastic bags, he said.
Proper recycling helps the future viability of the recycling business, which is seeing a 14-year low in the value of recyclables, Disbrow said.
China is the main purchaser of recycled goods, but its appetite for that has decreased as its economic growth has slowed, she explained. "With less global demand, recycling prices are down and Chinese recycling demands are down, so quality requirements go up, " she said. "What you are shipping, you have to make sure is clean and does not have contamination."