Over half of U.S. cities have some form of curbside recycling. But what actually makes it into recycling bins is often not actually recyclable. This contaminates the entire recycling stream, taking revenue away from recyclers and sends more recyclables to landfills.

Getting more of the good and less of the bad is better for the economy, the environment and the community. That's why three cities Denver, Atlanta and Chicago partnered with The Recycling Partnership to clean up contamination and boost recovery.

It all started with data. Diving into both waste and recycling, teams of city and Recycling Partnership staff members looked for areas of improvement in each community. How much recycling was left in the trash? How much trash was being thrown in the recycling bin?

In Atlanta and Chicago, contamination rates were the main challenges. In Denver, contamination was low, but a lot of cans were being thrown away in the trash instead of recycling bins.

“Consumer surveys show that people really want to recycle, said Keefe Harrison, CEO, The Recycling Partnership. “But they just don’t know how to recycle and why recycling correctly really matters. In our pilot program, we wanted to test different ways to educate and encourage recycling behaviors that produce tangible results.”

The teams piloted programs to help people recycle better in each city, spreading the word with informational tags on garbage and recycling carts, billboards and bus ads, feet-on-the-street campaigns, mailers and social media posts. In a matter of months, people started responding positively, with more recyclables collected and fewer reaching landfills. Cleaner recycling streams generated more value for recyclers.

Results revealed strong improvements in each city:

  • Atlanta: 57% reduction in contamination on pilot routes.
  • Chicago: 30% reduction in contamination on pilot routes.
  • Denver: 25% increase in aluminum can recovery on pilot routes.

The pilot program was funded by a mix of city resources and grant dollars from The Recycling Partnership. In Chicago, The Coca-Cola Company and Target provided additional funds through the partnership, allowing the city to take its messaging across 77 neighborhoods.

Overall, more than 30 companies have invested in The Recycling Partnership to help make U.S. recycling more sustainable and economically viable.

“Partnership is powerful,” said Harrison. “By combining the insights and services of U.S. cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Denver with our funders’ investments and our staff’s technical acumen, we are creating measurable change in material recovery, and in people’s daily lives by making their cities more sustainable. The value of recycling properly goes a long way toward supporting environmental health by eliminating the production of additional greenhouse gases, creating jobs, and adding more materials back into circulation for manufacturing and infrastructure.”

“This pilot shows that we can improve recycling in the U.S. to drive increased collection of our packaging as well as other valuable recyclables. These efforts will go a long way towards our world without waste goals to collect the equivalent of a bottle or can for everyone we sell by 2030,” said Sarah Dearman who leads sustainable packaging for Coca-Cola North America. “Through partnerships like The Recycling Partnership, we can extend the lifecycle of our products’ packaging beyond the hands of the end user to a more circular economy for packaging and help  build stronger, more sustainable communities in major cities like Chicago.”

About The Recycling Partnership

The Recycling Partnership is a national nonprofit organization that applies corporate partner funding to improve the recycling system in cities and towns across the nation, thus increasing supplies of clean materials for manufacturing. The Recycling Partnership is the only organization in the country that engages the full recycling supply chain: from the corporations that manufacture products and packaging, to local government charged with recycling, to industry end markets, haulers, material recovery facilities, and converters, positively effecting recycling at every step in the process and transforming recycling in towns all across America.

Between 2015 and today, The Recycling Partnership has assisted more than 500 communities with tools, resources and technical support. It has provided 400,000 recycling carts, reached 29 million households, and helped companies invest more than $27 million in recycling infrastructure. In doing so, it has achieved results in the form of: 382 million gallons of water saved, 164,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas avoidance, reductions in targeted contamination rates, and an energy savings of 2.0 trillion BTU per year. For more information, visit www.recyclingpartnership.org.