The Laws of Recycling

Get residents on board before recycling is mandated in your apartment communities.

California’s AB341, which is slated to go into effect on July 1, will require owners of multifamily buildings of five or more units to make recycling services available to residents. While this legislation is not the first of its kind, it certainly speaks volumes about the trend of getting residents on board with recycling, something that historically has been rather difficult for multi-housing owners and operators.

“No matter how many [bins managers] put out on the property or how much money the property owners, management or county recycling coordinator spends on literature educating those residents, they have never found a good way to get participation levels up or to deal with contamination issues,” says Mike Ferris, CEO of Valet Waste, a doorstep trash removal company that services 350,000 apartment units in 23 states.

One of the biggest issues, he adds, is that recycling is just not convenient for residents, and it’s difficult for apartment owners and managers to control the waste stream on site; this often means having trash and recycling left out in common areas, in dumpster areas or in compactor areas throughout the community.

“The majority of what the hauler does is outside of the grounds of the community, which leaves the … day-to-day waste recycling stream in a very uncontrolled environment,” explains Ferris. This can put the responsibility in the hands of the maintenance staff, resulting in many hours a day spent collecting trash—time that should be spent elsewhere.

“To take out the recycling, [residents] have to lug it down steps, find a [bin] somewhere and then throw it away. They don’t own the place, and they’ll probably move at some point, and it’s not convenient for them, so they don’t do it—no matter how many flyers they get on recycling,” he adds.

With Valet Waste’s doorstep removal program, resident participation rates for recycling have gone from between 0 percent and 8 percent to between 25 percent and 75 percent, reports Ferris.

The inconvenience is only part of the challenge, however. In the multifamily sector, space constraints and design also play important roles, as does the fact that recycling regulations are often fragmented by municipality, adds Ferris.

Establishing a plan

Because of these challenges, a goal of just 50 percent diversion is achievable and reasonable for the multifamily sector, asserts Brian Greene, director of commercial property sales for the Western Group of environmental services provider Waste Management. The most effective programs are those that separate trash from recycling, as recycled materials can get wet and/or contaminated when mixed with other trash.

The company has found that apartment owners are seeking several different recycling and sustainability services (i.e. trash service, recycling service, bulb and battery disposal, e-waste disposal). Consolidating services into a single vendor can reduce the amount of time a property manager spends on maintaining the programs, however.

Nick Alicastro, vice president, business development at Irvine, Calif.-based Western National Property Management, highlights certain questions to ask vendors. These include: Can the current vendor meet our requirements? What is the vendor’s plan for compliance? Is there any additional cost?

To set up a recycling program, Waste Management uses a five-step approach: 1) assess the property and what materials are coming out of it; 2) devise a plan for the building that can accommodate its needs or challenges; 3) implement the plan, 4) educate the residents and on-site staff; and 5) provide feedback in the form of reporting.

Getting residents engaged in a program is key, points out Greene, though it’s also one of the biggest challenges. Developing an education night concerning recycling, or deploying newsletters that provide information on recycling can be useful, he suggests. Signage and collateral, however, are also key for ensuring that residents know how to recycle properly.

In a multifamily community, creating awareness is crucial. “If you just put containers behind a building and say, ‘I have a recycling program,’ you’ve failed,” Greene stresses. “You have to have a plan devised on how [you are] going to make people aware of this, how [you are] going to make sure they know which goes into which container, and how the plan is going to work.”

Many local ordinances include penalties for contaminated recyclables, Alicastro points out, adding that though a property can require residents to sort trash, mandating those under a current lease can prove to be very difficult. But, he adds, there may be opportunities within the program that do, in fact, benefit the owner.

“Residents may actually be willing to pay for a trash pickup and sorting amenity rather than taking their trash to different bins,” he notes. And, “if we promote our recycling efforts in the leasing office, we attract tenants that have a higher value for protecting the environment—and that translates into a tenant that respects our assets.”

As far as providing feedback, Waste Management, for example, creates a report that shows how much a particular location has recycled and whether material has been sorted correctly. As part of this piece, the report shows how many trees and kilowatts of electricity were saved, for example, through recycling. Property managers can put this information into a newsletter to engage residents, who often want to know how they stack up against the previous month and/or year-to-date.

Recycling doesn’t just come in at the property management level, however. Diverting construction waste from the landfill can be just important, especially in terms of helping a building achieve LEED certification. Waste Management’s Diversion and Recycling Tracking (DART) tool monitors recycling performance during construction, renovation and demolition, tabulates diversion rates and provides documentation to support LEED certification.

The future of recycling

While recycling mandates have yet to take the nation by storm, it’s just a matter of time before apartment managers around the nation must take them into consideration. In fact, Ferris believes most, if not all, markets will have some form of legislation within the next three to five years. He believes these mandates will not only force apartment communities to recycle or pay fines, but also that they will require a certain percentage of a building’s waste stream to be diverted from the landfill. Eventually, he thinks, similar to San Francisco—which has one of the highest diversion rates in the country—all residents will be obligated to compost.

In this case, Alicastro advises getting involved in the legislative process. “Quite often we find that our real problem is that no one thought about how the landlord would go about getting compliance from residents,” he notes. “Getting involved can help.”

Greene, meanwhile, believes the true driving factor for recycling will be financially driven. “The benefits of recycling, not only to the environment but also to the bottom line, will be helping people to start through that process a little bit faster than waiting for regulations to occur,” he predicts.

The role of disposers

Garbage disposals have historically been preferred for their public health and sanitation benefits, but reducing food waste from the kitchen has made them more popular in apartment buildings.

“They get the messy, wet stuff out of garbage bags instead of leaking in the hallways or messing up trash chutes,” says Kendall Christianson, owner of Gaia Strategies and a senior consultant on environmental affairs for InSinkErator.

Food scraps comprise 30 percent or more of the waste from apartment buildings, points out Christianson, adding that a shift in the conversation has occurred as more and more people understand that getting food waste out of landfills is productive, as it turns into energy and fertilizer, rather than allowing it to decompose and produce methane, which it would do in a landfill. (Nearly 19 million tons of food waste is brought to landfills annually.)

“Five years ago, no one was talking about food scraps,” recalls Christianson. “But now it’s very much a part of the discussion among cities about how to go after it more aggressively, and it is only going to be deepened in the next five to 10 years,” he predicts.

Recently, for example, the Austin City Council approved the Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan, which includes composting requirements and a pilot that will collect yard trimmings, food scraps and compostable paper.

If people use disposers correctly, says Christianson, the collection of food scraps would be a non-issue. He adds that disposers can generally handle more waste than people think, but education is the key to bringing this issue to the forefront.