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Increasing the quality of the curbside recycling stream saves money, time and ensures the maximum amount of material is processed and recycled, which is the goal of this project. Non-recyclable materials can damage sorting equipment (like plastic bags and film jamming conveyor belts and rollers) and contaminate entire batches of recycling, leaving sorters no choice but to send the entire load to the landfill. Though “wish-cycled” to avoid putting them in the trash, non-accepted items end up there anyways, often taking additional volume of correctly recycled materials with them. The Recycling Partnership’s traditional “Feet on the Street” program has been implemented in more than 70 communities around the nation, with some communities seeing as much as a 57% decrease of non-recyclable items in recycling and an average of a 27% increase in the overall capture of quality recyclables. By using cameras and computer technology to perform traditionally expensive and labor-intensive cart audits, feedback can be provided for more collection events, longer-term trends can be identified and weather is no limitation. The results of this pilot will be used to inform future cart tagging approaches here and throughout the nation.
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The pilot project is funded for six months. While originally planned for fall 2022 and winter 2023, the project timeline was shifted to account for fluctuations in population and recycling habits caused by the holiday season. In late 2022, equipment was calibrated, and baseline data was collected. The educational component, which includes postcard mailings, is slated to begin in January 2023 and conclude in late spring. The City and its partners spent the time leading up to the project spreading the word and sharing details of the project. A project informational mailer was sent to every address and information was included in the Curbside Journal. Staff also updated the Commission on the Environment on project progress, presented to Council and participated in a variety of media interviews on the project. This FAQ is a summary of the information previously distributed.
This pilot is educational, not punitive. When a contaminating material is identified in the truck hopper (which is emptied/compacted into the storage area between each cart collection), a postcard will be mailed to the parcel address with:
Note: Only contaminating material is identifiable. Recyclable/non-contaminating materials are obscured in the image. Cameras are low resolution, only capable of determining contamination, not reading documents, although residents are reminded to shred any sensitive documents and place them in a paper bag, per normal/existing precaution.
Consider what was called out as contamination and, in the future, make sure that item is not included in your recycling cart. Use it to compare your recycling habits to City guidelines. Recycling can be confusing and rules and acceptable materials vary across communities depending on their local processor’s rules. East Lansing’s curbside guidelines may differ from those in a community you’ve lived in before, and some items that are considered “contamination” in curbside collection are recyclable elsewhere, but need to be collected and delivered to a separate facility. For example, Styrofoam™ is a major contaminant in East Lansing curbside carts, but the City does accept it at the East Lansing Department of Public Works recycling drop-off facility, 1800 E. State Road, where it is sent to a separate processing facility than other materials. Plastic bags, Amazon-style bubble mailers and film cannot be recycled in curbside carts or at DPW, but many area retailers have collection bins for this material through nationwide recycling initiatives.
The City’s Curbside Guidelines are a great guide, but only so much information can fit on a one-page flyer. To fill the gaps, the City has launched the Recycle Coach app. Community members can access it in their web browser at www.cityofeastlansing.com/recycle and use the “What Goes Where?” tool to learn about proper disposal and recycling options for 15,000 material keywords. Recycle Coach is also available as a mobile phone application, available for free from the Apple or Google Play app stores. In addition to the material search function, residents can register an address for text/email/push-notification collection reminders, print a collection calendar and more.
If you believe you received a postcard erroneously, let us know! As a pilot project with an associated academic study, these are useful data points. But don’t worry, your recycling collection will not be impacted. The technology is tuned to high levels of confidence, meaning that it’s more likely for an address contributing contamination to not receive a postcard, than it is for a household that is correctly recycling to erroneously receive one. Cases of erroneous or misassigned mailings should be minimal, but a small number of errors can occur in any automated process.
Note: Contamination detection related to this pilot and associated postcard mailings is performed during the collection of the cart using cameras mounted inside of the hopper. It is completely automated and does not alert drivers of the contamination or reject a cart’s contents prior to collection. However, pre-collection visual inspection of carts contributing dangerous, damaging or grossly contaminated loads have always been tagged with a rejection notice by sanitation crews during their routes to protect their safety and the equipment and to notify residents of the reason it could not be collected. These collection rejection tags are part of longstanding practice and are unrelated to this pilot project.
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