David W McCaryThe City of San Antonio began accepting plastic bags in curbside single-stream carts two years ago. In its first year, 550 tons were recovered through the program, which excludes black plastic bags, but that number fell by more than two-thirds in the second year.

The problem isn’t necessarily fewer plastic bags going into carts. The issue is some residents have forgotten the proper protocol for recycling them: shoving all bags into one bag and tying it off, creating a soccer-ball-sized mass that can be recovered at the MRF. Loose bags can tangle sortation equipment and become residue.

“I think that they’ve begun to kind of take for granted that you still need to tie them tightly into bundles, because they’re still recyclable and can still be part of the market stream,” said David McCary, director of San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department.

San Antonio, which is America’s seventh-largest city, and MRF operator ReCommunity Recycling launched the city’s “Bag Your Bags” program in August 2014. McCary recently spoke with Plastics Recycling Update to provide an update on the program, discuss outreach strategies and offer tips to his peers who may be considering their own similar efforts:

Plastics Recycling Update: Since residents aren’t tying the bags off, they’re falling loose, becoming part of the residue and not being counted in the tonnage recycled, correct?

McCary: That’s exactly what’s happening. We are now going back to enhance more of a robust education and outreach program that needs to be driven back to our communities, back to every resident, back to homeowners associations. We even want to take that same message to school kids, our next generation of recyclers. We want them to be a part of that solution as well, so that they can go home and say “Mom, dad, are you tying it together? Don’t forget this is part of what you do.” And because it’s part of the blue cart, when they’re tied together, they go right up that conveyor belt just like any of the other commodities and they don’t get caught up on the star systems that are in place.

How are you addressing the problem of too many loose bags?

McCary: We feel that we’ve got to go and do more robust education and outreach. We have a commercial that we’ll be launching soon, as well as a strategy to get the information out door to door.

Are there other strategies that you’re looking at for reaching people?

McCary: The San Antonio Spurs here are a very big, important part of our community. We make certain that … we offer a commercial during some of their games. We also do billboards. We do fliers. We do educational outreach. We have our community brochures – what we call our service guide – and that service guide also makes a point to say, “This is how it’s done.” On every blue recycling cart that we have for all 350,000 customers there’s a label on the top … that actually gives the proper way to recycle your single-use plastic bags.

Does the City do “oops” stickers on carts as a way to provide direct feedback to households that may be putting the bags in loose or not tying them tight enough?

McCary: Right now, we’re exploring different interventions that will allow us to look at what is probably one to three different things that actually gets their attention. We still give them a little educational tag. It may not have “oops” on it, but we do have these outreach tags that we give them. We can place it on the cart and say, “You just didn’t get it right away.” We do call them “Your Reminder” tags.

Is direct feedback to households a better way to reduce contamination, as opposed to blanket media?

McCary: Yeah, we find that that’s the most important part – that direct connect to the resident and to the community. All of our drivers are trained as they empty their carts – it’s not that they can look in every cart – but as it’s being emptied there are cameras in the hopper area to their trucks so they can see the types of recyclables in case there’s something that should not have been there. Then we can still provide that direct feedback to the community.

Do you have any advice for other municipal programs that are considering a curbside program like this?

McCary: One of the things that I would always make sure my peers understand is that the communications piece has got to be the most critical component that you could ever have, so that residents feel empowered and actually understand exactly why what they do … makes a difference. We always have to keep that part of it in front of them. And, of course, you always have to have a vendor that also understands that they’re willing to work with each of the cities to make these things happen. That’s why we’ve really enjoyed working with ReCommunity, because they’re partners in our endeavor to make this happen in a positive way.