Marshall County has something other rural counties envy, and it isn’t just our lovely lakes, fantastic parks, historic downtowns, and fun festivals. It’s our access to curbside recycling.

Many rural recycling routes have gone away in recent years because of several problems. First, it costs money to run rural recycling routes. The pandemic made this tougher, with fuel increases, driver shortages, and high employee turnover. Recently hired drivers unfamiliar with remote routes don’t always get it right, and residents get mad.

Next, even though consumers demand more recycled content in their purchases, manufacturers still find new materials more affordable to work with. We sorely need investment and innovation making recycled content affordable and available to create a “circular economy.”

Finally, residents continue to contaminate their bins. By contaminate, I don’t mean throwing in some unknown plastics. Recycling plants—including the one Marshall County recycling goes to—handle a wider range of plastics and finding solutions for plastics that were considered unrecyclable a couple of years ago.

By contamination, I mean: food waste, Oriental rugs, particleboard furniture, batteries, tires, pictures frames—you name it. This goes beyond “wishcycling,” but using recycling bins for trash, which drives up costs for everyone and threatens rural routes.

These days, waste and recycling companies tolerate less contamination. Contaminated loads of recyclables, instead of being sorted by employees, are now more often diverted to landfills. This feeds the myth that all recyclables are being landfilled, a comment I hear daily (if I had a nickel!), but it is simply not true.

Let me say this again: curbside recycling is not routinely going to the landfill. Clean loads of recycling are delivered to the materials recovery facility in Elkhart to be sorted mechanically in a state-of-the-art facility I have seen with my own eyes.

We can do some things to keep our curbside program working, such as focus on the quality of recyclables, not just the quantity. To do this, waste haulers need to invest in customer education. Customers are truly confused about what to put in their bin—I hear this all the time, and we at the Recycle Depot have come up with ways to make this clearer through fun programs such as our Recycle Bootcamp.

Customer education should be more than a website page, which is inadequate in a rural county where many people do not or cannot easily access the Internet. Haulers should hire educators to address customers’ questions directly and run community campaigns that touch more residents. Haulers could also address contamination at the bin, which could be as simple as tagging contaminated bins with clear feedback on why this bin was left behind that day.

We also need to lower the cost of recycling, using tools such as pay-as-you-throw programs, that reward customers for recycling because they are billed only for the weight of the trash they make. These programs are in use in other places; why not here?

Curbside recycling protects our local landfill by encouraging more people to recycle. It keeps our air cleaner because fewer people burn their recyclables, which can be highly toxic to people and animals. It reduces dumping and littering. It contributes to that intangible “quality of life” that more citizens expect and that makes our county an attractive place to call home. Let’s do all we can to keep curbside recycling working in Marshall County.

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