How The Recycling Partnership is Helping Communities Boost Diversion Rates

It took only 13 days last summer for Columbia, S.C., to deliver 40,000 recycling carts to its residents, as one of the first cities to receive grant funding from The Recycling Partnership (TRP).

Without the $300,000 grant from TRP to upgrade to 95-gallon carts, the city would still be collecting its recyclables in 18-gallon bins, the same way it had since its residential curbside program started in 1991, says Samantha Yager, recycling coordinator for the city of Columbia, which has a population of 120,000 people. The Recycling Partnership, previously called Curbside Value Partnership, is a national nonprofit that was formed in 2003 to improve recycling rates in the United States,

“We would still be fighting for those dollars to start this program,” Yager says. “A lot of people don’t realize the economic value and the environmental value of increasing recycling. It goes to show that you have this outside organization that believes in your community and believes in recycling and what it can benefit your community.”

In fact, in its first three months of cart collection, the city has seen a 100-ton increase per month. “Last year’s average, we were doing about 330ish tons a month and we’re now doing about 450 tons,” she says.

With one year of grants under its collective belt, TRP has provided the public-private stimulus for rolling out more than 117,000 carts to six communities—Columbia, Florence, Ala., Greenville, S.C., East Lansing, Mich. and Richmond and Roanoke, Va. It’s on track to have distributed more than 160,000 carts by spring 2016, says Karen Bandhauer, executive director of TRP.

“Our objective is to work with community partners that have a vested interest in a successful outcome,” Bandhauer says. “We provide grants, but we also provide pretty intensive technical assistance. We dig in deep around operations, education, just how the entire system works together to have a really successful program change. We really want partners that are willing to dig in with us and adopt our best practices.”

TRP’s “sweet spot” seems to be small to medium-sized communities with 25,000 to 30,000 households, she says.

“In many cases, the community knows that they need to make this shift and the understand that it’s where the future is headed with recycling, but there’s so many competing investments for municipal dollars, that getting those front costs and an improved budget, is not really an easy task,” Bandhauer says. “If we can come in and work with those communities and we can offer a grant and then a lot of value, additional value, non-monetary value, through our partnership with them, that’s huge for a city council.”

For every dollar that TRP invests, there are more than $7 being invested by either the local government, a state agency, or other organizations.

“What we say is that if someone gets a cart and they have curbside collection, and a good functioning program otherwise, that we should anticipate on average about 450 pounds per household,” she says, adding that TRP also provides education and outreach resources and technical assistance to communities that already have a single-stream cart system in place.

Once the carts are implemented, the communities and TRP track closely new tonnage as well as figures associated with greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water usage and economic value. For example, in Florence, recycling rates increased from 43 percent to 73 percent after the new curbside carts were distributed. A projected 90 percent increase in its recycling rate is expected in Richmond, which received about 61,000 carts off an investment of $420,000.

“We’re all starting to realize certain issues like waste are things that transcend a company and we have to figure out how to work together,” says Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability for Coca-Cola North America.

Coca-Cola, a funding company of the organization, has invested more than $1.65 million over three years to TRP and has placed more than 240,000 recycle bins across North America since 2008.

“With TRP, a collection of different entities that have gotten together, put some skin in the game in terms of funding and collectively worked towards really expanding this type of movement,” he says. “That in and of itself is exciting when you have people crossing sort of those invisible lines between my company or my sector. This is a catalyst for that kind of collaborative activity.”

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