The city is dumpster diving.
Trying to determine what residents are recycling and what they are not, Fort Worth dug through about 800 barrels of trash and recycling containers this week from 400 randomly selected households, finding everything from sticky soft drink cans and rotting heads of lettuce to working electronics.
“We want to know what individuals are doing with their recycling and their waste and why they make those decisions [as a way] to improve the message for recycling,” said Kim Mote, who is assistant director of code compliance and over waste services.
The city audited the trash collected by a single garbage truck in 2012. Assuming that was representative of all garbage trucks year round, the city is sending about $13 million in recyclable materials to the landfill each year.
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“We are wasting a tremendous amount of money by throwing this in the landfill,” Mote said. “And it is gone forever — buried in a landfill and it is also contaminated.”
Getting more recyclables into recycling carts not only saves the city money, but it will also extend the life of the city’s landfill, said Mote. So the city spent $37,500 to hire Action Research, a consulting firm recommended by Keep America Beautiful and based in San Diego, to take a closer look analyzing the trash.
The life of the city’s landfill, which was expanded in about 2004, is 35 years. The life of the landfill may shrink, however, with how much Fort Worth is growing and if people are recycling less, Mote said.
“Is the landfill really where material that still has value should be going in the first place?” he asked.
Studying residents’ trash
The 400 households were chosen at random by Action Research, with the households scattered throughout the city to represent Fort Worth’s diversity, Mote said.
In the first step of the study, which started March 17, chosen residents received replacement carts on their day of trash collection for the carts that were removed for the study. They also received written notice outlining the purpose of the audit.
The garbage carts then went to the South East Landfill, where teams of contractors from Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, a solid waste consulting firm out of Virginia, sorted the trash and recycling into 25 categories like glass beverages containers, Styrofoam, mixed paper, card board and metals, said Elizabeth Rice, a consultant with the firm.
The sorting is to “try to figure out what is recyclable that people are putting in the trash and what trash people are putting in the recycle bins.”
“We are just really trying to figure out how people are thinking,” said Rice.
But it wasn’t always a pretty process.
The crews, some wearing face masks to beat the smell, cut through bag after bag of trash and emptied the waste onto tables to sort. The crews then sifted through legless baby dolls, messy pizza plates and rotting flowers to categorize each piece of trash.
Right now, Fort Worth sends about 22 percent of trash and compost to be recycled, but has a goal of 40 percent.
Paul Gardner, a resident in north Fort Worth who posted about the study on Facebook, said the motive for the study is good, but there could have been more effective ways to get people to recycle, such as spending the money on recycling education in schools.
“The best thing to come of this, regardless, is that it is pulling it to the forefront and creating a conversation. … People need to understand that with limited resources, we need to be conscious of what we are using. And I do like that it is bringing the conversation to a head,” Gardner said.
Jennifer Upton, another Fort Worth resident who has commented about the issue on Facebook, said the money is worth it.
“It will only cost more money to buy more land for more landfills. If we can recycle it, we need to do it,” said Upton, who added that she often sees people putting trash in the recycle bin and vice versa.
“If they would have asked for volunteers, I probably would have done it,” she said, excited about the program.
The collection of residents’ trash ends Saturday.
In the second step of the audit, Action Research will conduct interviews with households that participated in the audit to determine what factors influence Fort Worth residents’ willingness to recycle or not, according to a report to the Fort Worth City Council.
Residents can opt out of the interview process, said Mote, and any information collected during the audit is kept confidential between the city and the consulting firm.
Those results should be available by about May, he said, and will be used identify strategies to get Fort Worth residents to recycle more.
Though this is the first time Fort Worth has participated in such a comprehensive study, Mote said the audits are common practice in large cities across the country.