Jacksonville plans expansion and a greener recycling program

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The future of recycling in Jacksonville could eventually involve the use of artificial intelligence, or even a tool for residents to determine whether specific products can be recycled, as the city continues efforts to save money through decontamination.

The city has been working to improve its recycling program for about two years, from sending out refrigerator magnets to launching an app to help residents track recycling days and use the right materials. The latest project, an educational program that deployed “recycling assessors” throughout the city, will save more than $70,000 a year, according to a recent audit.

Still, officials are already looking at the next steps: expanding and modernizing the program at a time of national industry growth.

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“We achieved the goal of educating the public,” Eric Fuller, the city’s environmental programs manager, told the Times-Union. “We just have to keep the momentum going and just let them know that trucks are coming down your street whether you put out a cart or not, so you might as well do that.”

The city completed its final audit of the recycling program after completing a project with The Recycling Partnership, a Washington-based nonprofit, in early March. The goal was to assess every recycling bin in the city, inform residents if they were contaminating the materials with waste and ultimately reduce the overall contamination rate.

The city and the nonprofit each contributed $560,000 to the project, which officials consider a success.

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Residents may have noticed an orange or red label on their trash can last year: a calling card for the program. The cards described what accessories were in the trash that could not be recycled.

Accessors hired by the nonprofit went to every trash bin in the city twice from May to December last year looking for improvements.

“We identified the biggest polluter, which is plastic bags, and people bagging the recyclables,” Fuller said. “We expected that. That is common with these types of programs across the country.”

In response, they sent a targeted mailer to every home where plastic bags were found.

By reducing the overall amount of waste in recycling, the city not only reduces the amount of materials going to the local landfill, but also saves money on its contract with the recycling processing company.

If more than 10% of the collected materials cannot be recycled, Republic Services will transport them to Trail Ridge Landfill and charge the city. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the infection rate was about 19%. After the city suspended and restarted the program in 2022, the rate rose to 27%.

The latest rate of about 21.6% will save the city between $70,000 and $80,000 annually, Fuller said.

“It costs us about three times as much to throw away waste if it goes into your recycling cart, and we have to pay the processing fee at the recycling facility and then they have to take it to the landfill,” he explained.

The plan originally included removing the recycling bins of residents who were clearly using the bin as a trash bin, but public works decided they didn’t want “a negative light” to be put on the program.

But if haulers realize a bin is full of trash, they won’t pick it up, Fuller said.

What’s next?

Fuller and City Council President Ron Salem will present the findings of the spring audit at City Hall on Tuesday.

The audit found that recycling participation was lower than the city expected, at about 47%, Fuller said. Carriers estimate the actual number at about 60%, but the city still wants to get more residents involved.

“I think the key now is to grow it,” Salem said. He sponsored the community outreach program and pushed for a pilot composting program last year. “We need to get more people involved.”

To that end, public works will continue to work with The Recycling Partnership to identify potential grants to improve their technology and reach.

One option is to use AI to identify the contaminants from each individual recycling bin as it is dumped into the truck, allowing the resident to be automatically sent an information flyer if they see something like a plastic bag.

The city is also trying to register with a national database that will allow residents to scan a QR code on participating products to see if they are recyclable, specifically in Jacksonville.

But other green programs, like the recently completed city-sponsored restaurant composition pilot, have stalled. The city partnered with Sunshine Organics for the pilot last year, but the company would need to be able to collect large amounts of food waste to make the project permanent, Salem said.

The mayor’s administration supported the expanded recycling efforts and would be committed to helping.

“We’re going to brainstorm more marketing and communications ideas and continue to spread that message to the community,” Phil Perry, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, told the Times-Union. “Hopefully we will get some grants to support these efforts. Obtaining more federal funding is a priority for the mayor, so we hope we can work together to make sure that happens.”

Fuller encouraged people to download the city’s mobile app. Residents can receive their first bin for free from the city or even purchase a second can by calling 630-CITY or going online.