A public works crew hit the streets this week to let New Haveners know we’re putting a lot of the wrong trash in recycling bins — and jeopardizing the city’s ability to effectively do the job.
Led by recycling inspector Honda Smith, the crew has been accompanying regular trash crews on their rounds and affixing stickers to people’s toters to let them know the rules.
The pizza box with cheese stains? Can’t recycle it. But if you clean the cheese, the box can go in that big blue toter.
Anything else with food scraps, stains, food oils? Out. Same with tissue paper, shredded paper, and bottle caps, which can screw up the recycling machinery.
The foil cap of your yogurt container? Nope. The container itself, if hot-water rinsed, can be recycled.
All these recycling guidelines — many old and some, like the shredded paper exclusion, relatively new, and some frankly confusing — need to be adhered to more by New Haven residents. Otherwise, the recycling tonnage is rejected and must be burned as garbage, at a much higher cost to the city, part of a nationwide challenge.
The guidelines all come from the state. ‘We are trying to do our part,” said Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Jeff Pescosolido.
Here’s the full list of what belongs in the recycling bin and what doesn’t.
On Monday the re-education campaign was launched as the crews placed first “What’s In” and “What’s Out” stickers, in English and Spanish, on the inside lids of the blue toters.
The goal over the next weeks is to stick all approximately 100,000 blue city toters and to advance the re-education campaign on social media and through DPW staff appearances, in the fall, at management team meetings citywide.
When the toter/single stream recycling program was launched in 2011, DPW had sufficient staff to have not only inspectors but also a recycling/public education officer deployed. It issued pizza cheese box alerts.
Now, however, DPW has no distinct public education/outreach staff. So that task, along with inspections of recycling violators— along with inspecting public space and work zones! —- all falls to 20-year DPW veteran Honda Smith.
Through her network of contacts, social media, SeeClickFix, Smith has corralled a crew of about 50 volunteers to supplement the DPW staff of trash and recycling haulers on their regular routes to get the word out about what’s in and what’s out.
DPW Public Information Officer Kathie Hurley reported she received 30 responses for the stickering campaign volunteers to a single notice placed on SeeClickFix.
“Educate, educate, educate,” said Pescosolido, meaning that’s the current push. Enforcement, to the tune of $250 for a toter violation, will be following on the heels of that if necessary, he added.
Contrary to a widely held notion — at least by this reporter — the city makes very little money from the recycling program. Some cardboard is sold separately, but the advantage to the city is that recycling saves money. The city pays for every ton of recycling delivered to its processor, Willimantic Waste.
If a ton of recycling is rejected and must be sent to a burn plant, as garbage, that costs $87.50, a lot more than the cost of recycling a ton, Pescosolido said.
The DPW’s Chief Financial Officer DeCola pointed out that the re-education — or enforcement down the road — must reach the city’s absentee landlords. He cited them as among the greatest recycling sinners. That’s because they fail to monitor their tenants. “We can put all the education tools in place, but if there’s no one there to enforce? You need to find the responsible person,” he said.
That’s why Honda Smith was out early Monday morning checking on her volunteers and staffers putting out the stickers on the pick-up routes on both sides of Whalley Avenue.
First stop was the Whalley Avenue correctional facility where among Smith’s volunteers is Corrections Officer Bobby D’Addona. He would take out, under his supervision, three inmates to put the stickers on toters within a two block perimeter of the jail.
Then we drove out to Monday’s dedicated pick-up route, which includes Westville, West Hills, and West Rock. Tuesday’s route covers Newhallville and Beaver Hill; Wednesday is the Hill; Thursday is Fair Haven; and Friday, the Annex.
Smith found DPW staffer Dave Lawlor climbing in and out of his pick-up truck putting on the stickers.
At the intersection of Valley and Strong streets, Rose Santos had just had her toter picked up. As she was washing it out, a staffer with a sticker who had just turned the corner explained the campaign to her. Santos realized she had had some food waste in there. “I’m going to be better,” she promised.
Directly across the street, at 233 Valley St., Smith pointed to a toter sitting on a strip of lawn that had recently been cut, a bad sign. We lifted the lid and found clumps of grass cuttings and a paint can or two, and other definite recycling No-Nos. Smith went around to the front door and knocked, hoping to find the responsible person. No one was home.
Smith returned to her vehicle, checked the real estate site Vision Appraisal, which the city uses for property assessment purposes, and found the name of the owner. She wrote out a warning notice with the following message: “Refuse toter is contaminated. Please remove all grass clippings and paint cans. Follow sticker for proper recycling.”
At the intersection of Rock Creek Road and Victory Drive, Smith found a household where she did double duty — both as a recycling inspector and a public space inspector. The owner or tenants were keeping their large white driveway gate swung wide open, thus impeding passage on the sidewalk. She went around back to tell them they may not do that.
The toter was also a mess of unwashed juice bottles, paper cups and other papers that contained food residue. Smith issued a verbal warning in this case to one of the tenants, Michelle McCray. McCray said that one of the reasons garbage was in the toter is that the grey garbage bins are too small. The excess of garbage was just dumped in the blue recycling toter.
McCray said she knows not to do that. Most of the time she bags the excess and leaves it in the blue toter for the crews to take out, she said.
In this instance, the refuse-hauling crew, led by longtime driver Lou Barulli and helper Jameil Gibson, was just coming around the corner. The crew’s members noticed the blue toter was heavy and flies were swirling around. To their experienced eyes, that meant the recycling toter contained mainly garbage, and so they emptied it into their truck.
People on this route complain that they need larger or another of the smaller garbage bins, Barulli reported. Smith said she would provide an extra one for McCray.
Having to dump the contents of garbage-filled blue toters into the refuse truck is unfortunately not uncommon, said Barulli as he and Gibson did precisely that.
He said you know the blue toter is full of garbage because of the flies and also by weight. Garbage is often wet and heavier than the paper goods that should constitute most of the recycling, he said.
The crews, who over the years have gotten to know some of the residents whose refuse they pick up, don’t want to disappoint and leave over-flowing containers for a week on the sidewalk.
Barulli reported that in his experience there are more scrupulous recyclers on the Monday and Friday routes, in Westville/West Hills and the Annex. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday’s neighborhoods can especially benefit from the re-education effort, he said.
Smith said part of her work has included some cultural learning of her own. For example certain residents’ native cultures are OK with leaving scraps of food for dogs and other pets out beside the bins, she said. New Haven’s not OK with that.
Smith, who remains calm, professional, and methodical in her interactions with residents, many of whom she knows, is aware that recycling re-education will take time long time. “I think it’s urgent,” she said.
People want to do it, said Pescosolido. They just need to periodically get up to speed to do it the right way.
Anyone interested in volunteering for the effort should notify Smith on SeeClickFix, or leave a message for her at DPW’s citizen response telephone number: 203-946-7700.