plastic film bag

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Municipal programs are often short on funds, and it’s easy for recycling outreach to fall on the back burner amid budget constraints. East Hartford, Conn. recently took action on the issue by partnering with a plastics industry initiative.

According to a program leader in East Hartford, the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP) can substantially boost film diversion and help shift that material from curbside carts, where it’s a contaminant, into the retail collections stream.

Marilynn Cruz-Aponte, assistant director of East Hartford’s Public Works department, described the city’s experience in a recent U.S. EPA Sustainable Materials Management webinar. East Hartford was motivated by a rising contamination rate, specifically due to improperly recycled plastic bags.

“Our recycling plant operation has been impacted by plastic film that comes through our blue bins,” Cruz-Aponte said. “We have a two-hour, daily shutdown to deal with the kind of impact. For us, our concern is that quality matters, and if we don’t nip this in the bud, or if we don’t find a way of taking a right-hand turn or a left-hand turn, that’s going to cost us in the future.”

A program of the American Chemistry Council’s Flexible Film Recycling Group, WRAP appealed to East Hartford officials, in part because it was so easy to implement, Cruz-Aponte said. It’s an established national program that employs a business-government partnership model, which has been popular in East Hartford.

“All we had to do was tap in and tweak,” she said.

The city, which has a population of about 50,000 residents, collects around 3,300 tons of recyclables per year through a curbside recycling program. Its Public Works department’s Waste Services division has a $2.5 million annual budget.

Implementing the strategy

The city already had a partnership with a local supermarket chain called ShopRite, which was collecting film for recycling. That made it easier to launch the WRAP program. Cruz-Aponte met with the local business owner, explaining the WRAP initiative, the city’s interest and the expected impact. The Public Works department formed a close relationship with the business, which Cruz-Aponte said was crucial to the program’s success.

“I was able to have confidence in working with the owner, and got approval from her to have a direct working relationship with the store facilities director, for data tracking, for customer education, for hauler collection information,” Cruz-Aponte said.

Support from the city’s mayor was also critical, particularly in coordinating outreach and drawing media attention.

In the end, WRAP allowed the city to push for diversion of a new recycling stream at no cost to taxpayers.

“While it didn’t necessarily reduce tonnage significantly, it did allow the town to promote the elimination of plastic bag use in blue bins, it supported the recycling plant goals, and then it added a new initiative that refreshes the curbside recycling message in general and reminds residents to recommit to curbside diversion,” Cruz-Aponte said.

ShopRite doubled its film collections as a result of the WRAP outreach drive. Last fall, consulting and research firm More Recycling conducted an audit of the East Hartford program after it had begun. The audit found the film stream was made up mostly of plastic grocery bags. There was some contaminated film, totaling about 16 percent, but the city looked at the volume increase, without a major rise in contamination, as a big success.

“The fact that we just doubled material meant that this launch really did change behavior, and now it’s really a matter of providing deeper education about the diversity of the types of plastic that can be received at retail,” she said.

ShopRite continues to report sustained higher collection volumes since the WRAP launch, she said.

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