Nearly six months after the city of Corpus Christi launched its CLEAN (Recycle Contamination Lessening Education and Enforcement) program, not a single fine has been issued for placing non-recyclable items in a recycling bin.
The program, which began in January, aims to reduce the city’s recycling contamination rate, which was previously 40%, twice the industry standard.
“It looks like our contamination rate is going down significantly,” said solid waste director David Lehfeldt. “We are very optimistic at this point.”
On Monday, two Caller-Times staffers went on a tour to learn more about how the system works.
The city’s garbage trucks collect 20 to 22 tons of trash daily from approximately 1,000 residential customers. The recycling trucks collect five to six tonnes daily from around 1,200 customers.
The department needs 28 drivers with a commercial driver’s license (CDL), according to Lehfeldt. Due to understaffing, drivers often volunteer to make extra trips, sometimes hauling garbage and recycling on the same day.
A longtime staff member – Richard Gonzalez – is one of those with experience with both waste and recycling.
Gonzalez has been in the waste service for 18 years. He has been on the recycling roads for about a decade.
“It’s not like (the) parks or the streets (departments) where they start something and if they don’t finish it they can put cones and come back the next day,” Gonzalez said. “We can’t finish it the next day.”
Four quality control officers inspect neighborhood recycling bins for unwanted items such as plastic bags and wraps, glass, hazardous waste, pizza boxes and food waste, clothing, polystyrene, yard waste, electronics, ammunition and more.
“I saw everything, quilts, stuffed animals, actual tires, aluminum rims,” Gonzalez said. “Plastics that are not recyclable, they have grades on them. The laundry detergent and water bottles are (recyclable) but the caps are not so they have to remove the cap.
What happens if the recycling is contaminated?
When an inspector finds non-recyclable items in a bin, they leave a color-coded label informing the customer that their bin was rejected due to contaminants.
At the first notice, the customer receives a yellow tag. An orange tag is left for the second offense. On the third violation, a red tag is left informing the customer of a $25 waste collection fee that will be added to their electricity bill.
On the fourth offense, the city withdraws the bin for at least six months. To recover it, the customer must request it. Lehfeldt said the city so far hasn’t had to issue fines or remove trash cans.
Residents can have their bins voluntarily removed by opting out of the city’s recycling program. Those who repeatedly fill their recycling bin with trash can also request a second bin for around $11 per month.
Are more or fewer people recycling in Corpus Christi?
Gonzalez said he’s seen a 5-10% decrease in the number of recycling bins he picks up, but the number of homes with multiple bins is increasing.
Jose Jimenez started picking up trash in 1996 as a “can hopper”, picking up trash cans and dumping the contents by hand. He worked as a garbage truck driver for 22 years, picking up 800 to 1,000 trash cans every day.
“People used to put trash in their recycling, but now all that trash comes to us and they return their recycling bin to get another one,” Jimenez said. “There are people who don’t recycle at all, but that’s only in certain areas.”
Lehfeldt said the program has already proven effective. Only 7% of customers received a notification label, and most comply once they understand the recycling guidelines, Lehfeldt said.
“We have a good program and I think people should know that almost everyone is doing a good job,” Lehfeldt said. “I think a lot of people understand what’s acceptable and what’s not. I think they’re just going to have to adjust their lifestyle enough to make it work and I see it getting better.
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Ashlee Burns covers trends and breaking news in South Texas. Check out our subscription options and special offers at Caller.com/subscribe