On a recent Thursday morning, Jennifer Farrell opens the lid of a blue recycling bin in Salt Lake City’s Poplar Grove neighborhood and pokes her head in.
It’s heavy — filled to the brim with some recyclables but also with tarp and vinyl.
“We’re probably going to have to tag this,” she says and begins writing a note on a bright yellow form that she then staples to the bin. “You can see the rest of their recyclables are clean. They probably just don’t know, honestly.”
Farrell, the waste and education and outreach lead with Salt Lake City’s Waste and Recycling Division, oversees a team of five employees who deploy every weekday morning half an hour before the recycling trucks go out to dig through residents’ blue cans in an effort to keep trash out of the city’s recycling stream.
The program has been around for a few years, but it has become especially important in the face of changing economic conditions in China, which takes much of the world’s recycling exports and has begun cracking down on high contamination rates.
“The industry is flooded and commodity prices are down,” Farrell said, “and to sell it, they have to get a cleaner stream.”
Salt Lake City’s waste stream is cleaner than many cities its size, but 20 percent of the items residents put in their blue bins still end up in the landfill, Farrell said. That means the city not only is paying to recycle goods but is also being charged a daily fee for nonrecyclable contamination.
And this area — west of 200 East — is one of the city’s worst.
“There is a direct correlation between education and recycling behavior,” Farrell said. “There’s a lot more barriers kind of on this side — language barriers, cultural barriers, economic barriers.”
Of the nearly 20 cans Farrell and associate David Johnston checked as they spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune, only one had enough waste that it needed to be tagged and stapled closed.
But the two found nonrecyclables in almost every can they checked and left flyers on most to educate people about what should and shouldn’t go into their cans. At some points, they even moved waste themselves from a blue bin into the garbage.
RECYCLABLE IN SALT LAKE CITY BLUE CANS
• Phone books
• Plastics number 1-7
• Junk mail and office paper
• Paper grocery bags
• Aluminum beverage containers
• Tin (steel) food cans
• Corrugated cardboard and shoe boxes
• Cereal and paperboard boxes
“Right now regular trash, bagged recyclables, bags and films are the biggest issues — not little mistakes,” Farrell said. “Like OK, napkins and paper towels are not recyclable. But we would never tag a can just for that. But if we tagged it for something else, we’d take the time to go ahead and educate them about it.”
The city doesn’t have enough resources to check every can, so the so-called Recycling Education Team works to target areas that have historically had higher contamination rates. The team tags about 150 cans a week out of the more than the 40,000 they’re able to inspect.
“It seems like we just take a cursory look, but there’s a lot that can be told, for example, by the weight of a recycling can,” Farrell said. “If it’s pretty lightweight, there’s very few chances that there’s a lot of garbage in there. Garbage is a lot heavier than recycling. Recycling is all empty stuff.”
They use their other senses as well, she noted, shaking the recycling bin to hear if there’s glass in the bottom and even smelling inside the can to determine if there’s something in there that shouldn’t be.
When residents' recycling streams are too contaminated, the education team will tag the bin, staple it closed and follow up with residents later to make sure they understand why their recycling couldn’t be taken.
“We get a lot of blame game — like it was their 2-year-old, it was their grandparents, it was the neighbor,” Farrell said. “We get a lot of that. But most people, the majority, are pretty nice.”
And in the six years the program has been active, Farrell said she’s seen improvement in the recycling stream.
“There’s a lot less waste than there was before,” she said.
NOT RECYCLABLE IN SALT LAKE CITY BLUE CANS
• Food waste
• Plastic grocery bags
• Plastic films
• Shredded paper
• Food wrappers
• Cloth items
The ‘No. 1 action’ humans can do to improve the planet
Rebecca Smith, the sustainability director at ACE Recycling & Disposal, said Salt Lake City is the only municipality she knows of in the state that is auditing its residents’ recycling cans — but it certainly isn’t the only one that’s facing garbage in the stream.
ACE, which partners with 13 cities for recycling and garbage hauling, recently spent six weeks helping West Valley City check its recycling bins after taking over the city’s contract. The teams found at least some level of contamination in almost every can, she said.
“Recycling practices change and subsequently, most people are doing at least one thing wrong, even if they are doing their best,” Smith said. “We know that when we took over the city, waste management had not been super thorough in insisting on no plastic bags and no food waste, and so that was new information to some people — especially the plastic bag thing.”
Some people are making minor mistakes, she said, but the recycling facility has seen some “bizarre things,” including an entire toilet, dead animals, a metal sword and a 3-foot-tall plastic toy.
“You name it,” Smith said, “we’ve seen it.”
Auditing cans is one of the best ways to keep a recycling stream clean, she said, but it’s a lot of work, and most cities haven’t prioritized the funding — particularly now that it costs many cities across the Wasatch Front more money to recycle than it does to entomb items in landfills following international recycling changes.
The West Valley City Council recently increased its recycling fees for residents in an effort to lessen that economic impact, and it will also now allow residents to opt out of the service. Sam Johnson, a spokesman for the city, said the program is too new to know how many residents will stop recycling but pointed out that the program change is part of efforts to reduce contamination.
“We want to keep that recycling stream as clean as possible," he said, “so we prefer people opt out rather than not care and just kind of put stuff in and fill the recycling can with stuff that can’t be recycled.”
In Salt Lake City, Farrell said they’re nowhere close to charging residents for recycling, recognizing the service as an important part of the city’s wider sustainability goals.
And while members of the Recycling Education Team don’t typically bring up global climate change when they talk to residents about their blue bins, Farrell said recycling properly is “the No. 1 action that humans can do to improve our existence on this planet.”
“And that’s because recycling is many programs in one,” she said. “Recycling is an energy program. When you make products with recycled materials, there are energy savings. It’s a water program. When you are able to catch recyclables and make things out of recycled materials, there are huge water savings.”
While recycling has plenty of benefits, Farrell said it shouldn’t be thought of as the end of individual sustainability efforts.
“We’ve got to stop relying on our recycling bin for our waste problems and really look at how we waste in general,” she said. “Like [using] reusable straws and plastic bags.”