Jerin Dinkins grabbed an iPad and climbed out of her Waste Connections company car, lifted the lid of a blue recycling cart and took a quick but thorough look at its contents.
“We have clamshells and freezer boxes,” she told her partner, Gina Evans, who started filling out an “Oops!” tag as Dinkins snapped a photo of the cart’s contents.
The pair, Waste Connections recycling specialists, were out in the Burton-Evergreen neighborhood in east Vancouver on Thursday morning during the first week of a yearlong program to check for items that don’t belong in recycling carts.
They are on the lookout for overzealous recycling, or what Waste Connections calls “wishful recycling.” The customer’s intentions are good, but the results are not.
It’s still early in the program, but Dinkins estimated that up to 90 percent of the carts have had some type of “contamination.” These items take time and money to remove from the recycling stream, and end up in the landfill with other garbage.
Josy Wright, recycle manager for Waste Connections, said recyclables become her company’s property when customers roll their carts to the curb. The recycling specialists do not dig through the carts, primarily for safety reasons, she said.
During the program’s first few days, Dinkins and Evans have found lots of run-of-the-mill contamination. The top five have been plastic bags, produce and takeout clamshells, freezer boxes, plastic foam and lids from food containers.
“We haven’t seen any diapers yet,” Dinkins said, her voice expressing gratitude.
Do’s and don’ts
The recycling rules can be difficult to stay up with — and counterintuitive.
Milk cartons are recyclable; boxes for frozen foods are not.
Plastic tubs for yogurt, sour cream and other food can be recycled; plastic lids for these containers go in the garbage.
Cardboard is welcomed; pizza boxes soiled with grease are not.
Empty aerosol cans are OK; nails, screws and other tiny scraps of metal should go in the garbage.
Screw-on caps can remain on plastic bottles; all caps should be removed from glass bottles. (Glass goes in a separate bin, not in the blue recycling carts)
Here are a couple of tips for what can be recycled. Plastic and metal should be larger than your fist. Paper should be larger than a postcard.
“We always tell people, ‘If you don’t know, it’s better to throw it out,’ ” Dinkins said.
All cans, bottles, tubs and containers should be empty, clean and dry.
Residents who want to learn more can use the “Recycling A-Z Directory” on Waste Connections’ website, wcnorthwest.com, or download the RecycleRight app at the same location.
Recycling rules can change with time. Consider shredded paper. Waste Connections used to tell people to put the tiny pieces in a paper bag before placing them in the recycling cart.
Those bags break open and cause a mess at Waste Connections’ sorting operation, where workers pull out some recyclables and use magnets, screens and conveyor belts to separate others.
“It would be just poof, confetti everywhere,” Evans said.
Waste Connections now suggests taking shredded paper to a transfer station for free recycling or dumping it into a backyard worm bin or composting container.
Dinkins and Evans get to work early, at 5:30 a.m., before heading out at 6 a.m. for five hours peeking into carts, filling out tags, and logging data.
One person drives the hybrid sedan while the other tags, and they trade roles the next day.
“The driver picks the music,” Evans said.
“Because they are in the car more,” Dinkins added.
It helps that the two women are friends.
“We hang out outside of work,” Dinkins said.
“She’s my partner,” Evans said. “We both have a couple different communication styles. Together, we make a really strong team.”
Evans takes a friendly approach in filling out “Oops!” tags and adds a few words of encouragement, telling customers they are doing great and drawing a quick smiley face. A personalized tag, she said, is more effective at getting people to adjust their behavior.
“Most people, they want to do the right thing,” she said. “They want to recycle right.”
While out Thursday morning, Evans spotted a man sitting on his porch, smoking a cigarette. Dinkins took a few moments to let him know why she was peeking into the recycling cart and pointing out the problems she saw.
Most people are friendly. Hostile people, Dinkins said, “are few and far in between.”
Educators, not enforcers
Occasionally, Waste Connections recycling specialists or drivers will find a cart with an excessive amount of unaccepted items.
In these situations, the recycling cart will not be emptied, and the customer will need to remove the unaccepted materials or request that a Waste Connections garbage truck empty the cart, at an additional charge to the customer.
To date, the recycling specialists have come across only one recycling cart that merited such treatment.
“It was full of block foam,” Dinkins said. “And it had a fake Christmas tree.”
Both women emphasized they are educators, not rule enforcers.
“If you see us in the neighborhood, approach us and ask questions,” Dinkins said. “We are not here to enforce any codes.”
“I am not here to shame anyone,” Evans said. “I am not here to guilt anyone. I am not here to be the hard-core environmentalist, ‘You are ruining the Earth.’ “