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Tucson to begin monitoring recycling bins for prohibited materials
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New program looks to save costs

Tucson to begin monitoring recycling bins for prohibited materials

Eight-week “Feet on the Street” program will send inspectors to three recycling routes a day, monitoring 24,000 homes on four separate occasions

In the city’s recycling bin inspection program, bins with restricted items will be given an “oops tag.” Four tags will mean confiscation.

Starting Monday, March 22, some Tucson residents’ recycling bins will undergo inspections for adherence to the city’s guidelines on what can and can’t go in their blue containers.

The Tucson Environmental and General Services Department is beginning an eight-week “Feet on the Street” program where it will send inspectors to three recycling routes a day, monitoring 24,000 homes on four separate occasions to look for prohibited materials in recycling bins.

Bins will be marked with an “oops tag” if restricted items are found during an inspection. After four tags, the recycling bin will be confiscated.

The program comes as a cost-saving measure for the city.

According to Cristina Polsgrove, the public information officer for the environmental services department, the city is paying nearly $30,000 a month to its recycling facility for a 30% contamination rate found in the recyclables it drops off.

“We get a lot of stuff that’s just plain trash,” Polsgrove said. “Things like food waste, yard waste, dirty diapers, sometimes dead animals. Things that clearly are not recyclable.”

While the department used to make a profit from its recycling program, for more than three years, it’s received a bill from its material recovery facility for the cost of sorting recyclables coupled with a contamination fee for trash and other nonrecyclables found in its drop-offs.

The sorting charge is due to a policy change from China, which used to take in most of the world’s recyclables.

In January 2018, the country enacted its “National Sword” policy where it banned imports of plastic and other common recyclables, causing importers to scramble to find other recipients of the millions of tons of the recycling waste China previously processed.

With increasing sorting costs due to the ongoing struggle to sell recyclable-sourced raw materials, Tucson is no longer receiving a cut of the net revenues it once earned from the products its recyclables create. On top of processing fees, material recovery facilities add a charge for the amount of nonrecyclable materials they find.

Polsgrove says the city used to earn $1.5 million yearly from its recycling program. In fiscal year 2020, the city had to pay the Republic Services Material Recover Facility more than $3.5 million in processing fees with about $366,000 coming from contamination fees alone.

Common nonrecyclables like plastic bags can clog the conveyor belts and machinery that sort recyclables, while things like food waste can ruin bails of recycled paper.

In attempts to minimize the cost it pays its material recovery facility for nonrecyclable materials, the environmental services department is beginning its “Feet on the Street” bin-inspection program with hopes to incentivize the city’s recyclers to minimize contaminants in their blue bins such as Styrofoam, glass and plastic bags.

The department’s team of 10 inspectors is tasked with observing 1,800 recycling bins a day. If a bin is not up to code on four separate occasions, Polsgrove says the property will be notified the bin will be “coded” and seized by the city. The bin owner can appeal the decision but may be required to attend a recycling information session.

If the city’s recycling contamination rate drops from 30% to 15%, the city will avoid incurring contamination fees. Furthermore, the quality of recyclable material affects the price it can be sold at.

“Higher quality material can demand a higher charge,” Polsgrove said. “If we can provide cleaner materials to the recycling facility, then they will see more demand for those higher quality recyclables”

The inspection program is paid for by a $140,750 grant the environmental services department received from The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit that’s provided grants for similar projects across the U.S.

This isn’t the first step the environmental services department has taken to cut recycling costs. In September 2019, the department spread out its pickup dates to every other week instead of weekly.

The department also stopped picking up glass in recycling bins in November. Instead, it created drop-off sites throughout the city where residents can leave their used glass products for local reuse.

If the eight-week inspection pilot is successful, Polsgrove says it may become permanent to save the city from contamination costs.

“If, in fact, it helps us to reduce our contamination rate, then perhaps it would be something we would want to do as an ongoing program,” she said.

While the department isn’t revealing which neighborhoods will be monitored, it says those whose bins will be inspected should have received a postcard with a reminder of what items shouldn’t be recycled.

For a reminder on what can and can’t go into the blue recycling bins, visit tucsonaz.gov/es/recycle.

Contact Nicole Ludden at nludden@tucson.com. On Twitter: @nicolemludden.


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