How Cities Are Strengthening Programs for Long-Term Success


The 2022 Resource Recycling Conference “Local Resilience” session featured (left to right): Eduardo Rodriguez, Alexis Yaple, Kanika Greenlee and Zach Woodruff. | Big Wave Productions/Resource Recycling, Inc.

Resilience in recycling requires a number of things: upgrading technology, extending contracts, or even buying carts for residents.

Representatives from large and small cities described their efforts during the “Resilience at the Local Level” session, held on August 16 as part of the Resource Recycling Conference held in held August 15-17 in Austin, Texas.

Zach Woodruff, city administrator of Whitehall, Ohio, said that for him, resilience means the city “finally recognizing that we’re not going to do things the way we used to – we’re really going to change our process to make it more efficient, d improve our results and really work to improve the lives of our residents.

Kanika Greenlee, executive director of the Keep Atlanta Beautiful Commission, said COVID-19 requires resilience because the pandemic “showed you where the cracks in your system are and amplified them.”

In Atlanta, bulk collection had to be suspended, then changed to scheduled returns, and a Recycling Partnership grant-funded program to reduce contamination and increase attendance had to be delayed.

However, Greenlee said the city has partnered with the Foodservice Packaging Institute and added items to its accepted recycling list, such as cups, during the pandemic.

Now she has turned to the city’s MRF contract. Currently, it only lasts one year, but Greenlee said she wants to get a three- or five-year contract with renewable options so the city has to spend fewer resources each year on renegotiation.

Planning for the future also meant updating the vehicle replacement plan and doing a study to see how the city could make better use of its Automatic Side Loaders (ASLs). Greenlee has previously said that the three ASLs were used as support, as it was assumed that the city streets were too narrow to make full use of them. However, a feasibility study showed that more than 80% of Atlanta’s pickup routes would work for ASLs, so now the city has ordered five more and plans to continue expanding fleet numbers.

Greenlee said that to address labor shortages, the city has also turned to temp agencies and streamlined its onboarding. He decided to source CDL pilots competitively and create an in-house CDL program to encourage people to get certified.

Eduardo Rodriguez, City of Phoenix, speaking at the Resource Recycling Conference.

Eduardo Rodriguez talks about the City of Phoenix’s recent MRF upgrades, as session moderator Craig Wittig and fellow City of Phoenix colleague Alexis Yaple listen. | Big Wave Productions/Resource Recycling, Inc.

Improvements in Arizona

In one of America’s largest cities, resilience comes in the form of MRF upgrades and virtual education programs. Eduardo Rodriguez, chief operating officer for the City of Phoenix, said that in 2019 the city decided to do a $4.5 million upgrade to its North Gateway MRF.

This project added anti-windup disc shields, a drum magazine, paper and PET optics, and a ballistic separator. It also reused old PET optics for PP and expanded the pre-sorting line.

“At that time it was very difficult, especially when there was no market for it, but we were convinced that was the way to go,” he said. “We couldn’t just give up recycling.”

This upgrade ended up helping the city weather the COVID-19 years, during which it saw a 20% increase in inbound recycling right after another city MRF on 27th Avenue closed. to replace it with a new installation.

Phoenix processes its own recycling and that of five other cities, but was “able to handle this material very easily,” Rodriguez said. “We had the ability.”

Alexis Yaple, zero waste coordinator for Phoenix, said her team of six educators has gone from reaching 20,000 face-to-face people a year through MRF visits, events and presentations to a digital strategy.

They have created a site called recycle+ with virtual tours of MRFs and composting facilities, webinar series and virtual presentations in Spanish and English. They also launched the “Recycle Right Wizard” in collaboration with 10 other cities in the region, which allows people to search for a given material and receive instructions on how to manage it.

“Incoming questions to the call center went down when we started using it,” Yaple said of the assistant, adding that “on the back-end you have a lot of stats so you can see what people are looking for and target your marketing”.

The city is also creating a 40-acre Resource Innovation Campus at the new 27th Avenue MRF. Yaple said it would help the city process materials on site by partnering with other local businesses.

Phoenix executives also decided early on that they wanted to own all of their infrastructure, Rodriguez said. He makes a revenue split with his processor that gives the city 88%, and ownership also gives Phoenix flexibility.

“The big advantage we see for this is that we control what needs to be changed in the equipment,” Rodriguez said. “So if we have to upgrade to meet new specifications, we have that control.”

Looking ahead, the city has left room to add more bunkers for different materials as markets change and leans into AI.

Convincing the Ohio Community to Use Carts

In Ohio, Woodruff has helped roll out trash cans and recycling carts, instead of letting residents supply their own or, more generally, piling trash bags on the side of the road.

This 2020-2021 transition to a volume-based system for solid waste and recycling prompted residents to recycle and reduce, Woodruff said, because it used a tiered pricing system.

“It’s similar to other utilities,” he said. “You pay for how much water you use, you pay for how much electricity we use,” and now residents are paying for the size of bin they use.

All residents received a trash can and recycling cart, which the city paid for through a five-year funding plan and grants from the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO) and the Recycling Partnership. Woodruff said the city also got a one-time transition grant from SWACO.

He said there were savings of about $7,300 per year by switching to a volume-based service, and recycling uptake had increased from 26% to 95%. Solid waste going to landfill has been reduced by 25% and the city now has less waste.

Woodruff said that while there was a lot of initial frustration from residents who didn’t want to change, “now if we were to go back, I know there would be just as much pushback.”

“I would love to see more communities doing what we do, but I don’t know if a lot of people have that drive to do something different,” he added.

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