If recycling is so popular, why is it failing in a city as large as Phoenix that has a recycling infrastructure? According to news reports that aired on TV and in the Arizona Republic newspaper, Phoenix began a program with national marketing company Recyclebank in 2016 to encourage residents to recycle by rewarding them with gift cards and other retail discounts. The program cost the city $2 million annually. It was a big fail, and the program has been cancelled. While the current diversion rate for Phoenix is 33% (a 3% increase over last year), Assistant Public Works Director Joe Giudice told the Arizona Republic he does not "believe the increase was driven by Recyclebank’s efforts, but by other programs the city has implemented, including its new composting facility.”
When the contract with Recyclebank was approved last year, at least one Phoenix councilman “blasted” the program as a waste of taxpayer dollars, according to the Arizona Republic. “No joke,” said Councilman Sal DiCiccio, referring to the cost of a five-year contract with Recyclebank. “$9.875 million of your hard-earned tax dollars [are being spent] to talk about recycling.”
Now that $6 million has been freed up, it can be used for other purposes. One idea is the “Oops! Shine On” program, which has already been through a trial period. City workers actually look inside each recycle bin to see if it contains acceptable materials. An “Oops!” tag is left behind if the bin has unacceptable materials in it. A “Shine On” tag is left on the bin if all the materials are truly recyclable. The city claims the program works in neighborhoods where the trials took place, shifting acceptable materials compliance from 40%, when the program started, to 70% after just a few weeks.
Getting people to understand what is recyclable and what is not is particularly confusing with regard to plastic, and that’s too bad! There are so many different categories of plastics, and people tend to just throw anything that is plastic into the bins. That’s easier than looking for chasing arrows and numbers, then checking a chart—the city of Phoenix posts charts of what’s recyclable and what isn’t—to see if the material meets guidelines.
Also, people have to understand that the plastic recyclate has to be clean—some cities require that residents actually wash their plastic bottles and containers before putting them in the blue bins. Now that’s certainly a good use of resources!