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Finally, innovation in college campus recycling education

Digging through campus recycling and refuse bins can certainly draw strange looks and laughs from a crowd of college students. The costs are much higher for NOT digging deeper into the challenges that come with university recycling programs.

Fluctuations in market prices for recovered materials have impacted everyone—even college and university campuses. At Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin, the campus is now paying extra monthly fees for the contamination (trash) leaving their campus recycling bins.

The increased costs are fair. It costs Edgewood College’s recycling service provider, Waste Management, extra time and resources to sort and dispose of the unacceptable materials. The counter attack is no less expensive. Establishing a successful recycling education campaign on a college campus is an extraordinary feat. Turns out, recycling isn’t top-of-mind for college students.

But age and priorities aren’t the only problem. Students are constantly coming-and-going from campus; leaving in the summer for home or jobs, or enrolling for the first time at an institution that has different recycling guidelines than a student’s previous home-town. Re-education year-after-year is time-consuming and costly for facilities departments. Signage isn’t always reflective of year-to-year changes in acceptable material lists. Contracts change with service providers. Employees come-and-go and require re-training about recycling right.

The constant change of multiple variables wreaks havoc on campus recycling programs. Even Waste Management, sponsor of the app launch at Edgewood College, is interested in finding new ways to combat contamination and reduce costs to customers.

That’s why ERbin turned its attention to a better solution for campus recycling education. As much as we hate calling it education, it is what it is—but way cooler. Edgewood College is the first campus in the nation (with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point a close second) to implement the ERbin app for students and staff. A collaboration with a group of students in Edgewood’s Social Entrepreneurship course allowed ERbin to pair its data-driven technology with advice from students about how to best engage college students with use of the app, and interest in recycling, in general.

ERbin will spend the next few months promoting the app to students and staff, tracking use of the app, and finishing up the semester with a post-app implementation waste audit to measure any impact on contamination and volume of materials recovered.

One week into launching the app and it’s looking like free coffee might be the key to recycling right on college campuses 😉

Recycling education needs to go digital

It’s 2020. Estimates say that the material recovery industry loses $300M annually because consumers simply don’t know what materials to be tossing in residential recycling bins. How did we get to this point? With at-will availability of all kinds of information via our mobile devices, it’s baffling that consumers still don’t have the information they need to recycle right.

We’re going to change that. (You knew that was coming, right?)

First, let’s address the fact that many variables impact a consumer’s ability to recycle right. Markets for recovered materials have changed. Packaging has become complex – it’s not just glass, paper, cardboard, and aluminum/tin cans, anymore. Processing equipment has become antiquated and unable to meet the demands of new packaging materials. All of these variables create constant changes to local recycling program guidelines.

Yet, when you talk to the average consumer, the vast majority of people say they do recycle and want to recycle. Our waste audits in the City of Wausau and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus provide all the evidence we need that consumers want to recycle.

The problem is that the load of groceries you just brought home doesn’t look anything like the general messaging you’re seeing in local guidelines

The industry is working hard to make recycling work. Taskforces are researching new market opportunities for use of recovered materials. Processing infrastructure upgrades are slowly taking place across the country. But communicating with the public about how to recycle right?

So far, the solution has involved simplifying and generalizing messages: No plastic bags or plastic wrap. Plastic #1 and #2 containers-only. Cardboard boxes – yes.

The problem is that the load of groceries you just brought home doesn’t look anything like the general messaging you’re seeing in local guidelines (if you’re seeing those guidelines at all).

We’re coming at this problem from another angle: Be as specific as possible.

What if your grocery receipt told you exactly how to properly recycle all of the products you just purchased? What if you could give your kids your phone to scan the UPC barcodes of products in your pantry to learn how to recycle products you buy? What if your grocery delivery app told you exactly how to recycle all of the packaging for the products you just purchased?

It’s 2020. We have the technology. Would you use it?

A waste audit journey; pt 1

Consumer recycling behaviors are fascinating.

Bubble wrap, orange cone, boxes in full form – all not acceptable

We’ve spent the past three days up in the very early AM to get a peek inside resident recycling and refuse carts in the City of Wausau, WI. ERbin, in partnership with Rocket Industrial, a packaging solutions provider with its headquarters also in Wausau, is conducting a waste audit for the city. The goal is to learn about resident recycling behaviors so that we can provide better education to residents about how to recycle right.

All stakeholders involved – everyone from the Marathon County Solid Waste Dept., to the private hauler, Harters, to the City of Wausau, to ERbin and Rocket Industrial – we’re all looking to find ways to decrease the amount of materials that end up in landfills.

Curbside cart audit photos
Beautiful! Materials loosely tossed into the cart.

After three days of audits in Wausau, we’re learning that the rockstar recyclers and residents who need a little more education are incredibly geographically diverse. Which begs the question, why are some residents putting more of the right materials into their carts than others?

It all starts with the packaging designers and manufacturers. That’s why we are thrilled Rocket Industrial decided to get involved with the city waste audit. Rocket works directly with brands and manufacturers to help them package with less and with other options such as increasing the recycled content in packaging material. When packaging engineers can see first-hand how consumers make disposal decisions about product packaging, they can re-think packaging design that will lead to more sustainable disposal options.

Great effort with the paperboard boxes, BUT… plastic wrap left on box and boxes not broken down

Curbside audits are a great first step in addressing barriers to recycling right. We’ll be back with more audit findings. For now, enjoy the cart photos from our audit thus far.

3, 2, 1, ERbin Re-launch

We can’t believe it has been six months since we launched the very first version of ERbin in Weston, WI! Thanks to the amazing Weston beta tester feedback, we’ve iterated on the app’s user interface many times, and have added thousands of more products for users to scan.

That means we are ready for a Weston re-launch! Beginning on Monday, September 30, Weston residents will be able to jump on Google Play or the App Store and download the newest version of ERbin (search for erbin).

After you download, have some fun in your kitchen, bathroom, or utility closet and start scanning or searching for products or instructions on how to recycle in Weston recycle bins. Remember, recycling instructions in the app are specific to Weston’s Advanced Disposal customers. That’s because Advanced takes Weston recovered materials to the Portage County Material Recovery Facility (MRF) for processing. Weston neighbors in Wausau or Kronenwetter have a different recycling service provider and processor. The guidelines vary by community – crazy, huh?!

Also super important – Head to Facebook and search for ‘Weston, WI Recycles’ Facebook Group to join an ongoing conversation with us and your fellow Weston friends about how to recycle right. You’ll be able to get answers to questions we are all asking, when it comes to knowing what is acceptable in Weston recycle bins.

Love the app? Help us out by rating us with five stars in the App Store or Google Play.

Have feedback to make the app even better? We’d love to hear from you. Email Co-founder Michelle at mgoetsch@erbinusa.com.

Thanks for staying with us on this exciting journey!

With Gratitude,

Marveling at Madison Food Scrap Program Participants

It’s amazing how asking the simple question “WHY?” can lead to such a positive impact. ERbin began from that very question: WHY? Why is it so difficult to know what to recycle in my local community?

Fourteen months and a lot of learning and progress later, we’re bringing a solution to the table.

It doesn’t have to be hard to know what to toss in your recycle bin or compost cart. When residents have instant access to the right answers, making the right decision is easy.

We’re proving this method as Madison residents use the ERbin app during this summer’s Madison Food Scrap Trial Program taking place during August and September. Community composting programs often fail because just like with recycling, residents put the wrong items in the cart. The business receiving the materials often can’t have that kind of contamination in their compost. The contamination negatively impacts the business’s ability to sell that compost to an end-user.

On Friday, August 2, City of Madison Streets Division drivers picked up the carts from the 125 trial program participants for the first time. The outcomes were fantastic. Gunderson Health System’s Middleton dairy digestor staff were extremely happy with the materials they received. Only three tags left on carts to remind residents about acceptable items.

The Week 2 pick-up took place Friday, August 9. NO cart tags were left behind; a perfect pick-up!

Nearly half of the participants have downloaded the app, and others are participating in our Facebook group or are receiving the program’s weekly emails. We can’t wait for other communities to ask “WHY?” And see how the ERbin app can have a positive impact on decreasing contamination in their composting and recycling programs.

ERbin teams up with City of Madison Food Scrap Program

ERbin-Madison App Screenshot

Fun news! The City of Madison (WI) will begin their Summer 2019 Food Scrap Trial Program on August 2nd – and guess who will be the communication platform for all things acceptable/unacceptable in the food scrap carts? ERbin!

That’s right, the 600-or-so voluntary program participants will be able to download the ERbin app for instant access to a searchable database of items acceptable and unacceptable in their food scrap carts. There is also a tab within the app that gives trial participants instant access to how to properly dispose of many questionable household items.

With the ERbin app, Madison residents will never have to save paper lists, or go online to find items acceptable/unacceptable in their food scrap carts. And this is really important for this particular food scrap program.

Madison Food Scrap Program items are being taken to a digestor – NOT an outdoor compost facility. The list of acceptable items is highly custom and specific only to this particular food scrap program. In fact, we are staying away from using the term ‘compost’ altogether, because there are actually many technically compostable items not acceptable in the program.

We are so excited to be working with Madison on this exciting food scrap program trial! Madison has tried so hard to figure out a successful city-wide food waste diversion initiative, and we think the ERbin app as a resident communication platform is really going to ensure only the RIGHT items are going into food scrap carts. Together, we are going to make sure Madison gets a long-term food waste diversion program.