Opelika has enlisted the help of a superhero, Captain R2O, to educate the public on recycling.
“The ultimate goal is to push curbside recycling,” said Taylor McAllister, community relations coordinator for the City of Opelika. “Within that, there is a worldwide issue going around right now: China has stopped taking recyclables from the United States because of contamination.”
Chinese standards for recycling require contamination to be below 0.5% while American recyclables are over 20% contamination, McAllister said. The main problem in the U.S. is a lack of recycling education. About 30% of U.S. recycling materials were being sent to China to be recycled.
Opelika’s primary goal with their recycling campaign is to educate the public on how to properly recycle, McAllister said. When in doubt, throw it out. Plastic bags and Styrofoam cannot go through a single-stream recycling system, though they can be recycled in the recycling centers.
“We have what we like to call hope-cyclists,” McAllister said. “They want to recycle, but they don’t know how to recycle, so they’re just putting everything in the bin.”
The city charges $10 per month for recycling, but the recycling bin and the first month are free, McAllister said. The curbside program started less than two years ago.
Opelika also has two recycling centers, which can accept a larger variety of recyclables than the curbside service, McAllister said. The curbside service goes to a single-stream facility in Columbus, Georgia.
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“Auburn was the first city in Alabama to do curbside recycling, but [Opelika] was the first in East Alabama to offer curbside single-stream recycling,” said Terry White, Director of Environmental Services for Opelika. “We did it out of convenience to our citizens because we feel like we have a couple thousand people who actually recycle in Opelika.”
Opelika has slightly over 7,000 households receiving garbage collection, White said. 1,050 households also participate in curbside recycling, though a similar number is expected to regularly drop off recycling at a recycling center.
About 4% of recycling bins in Opelika have been contaminated, White said. The bins at the recycling centers have a roughly 60% contamination rate.
“Any time we get somebody new on the recycling plan, if they’re not recycling right, they’re contaminating not just the load in their recycling bin but the rest of ours,” McAllister said.
Opelika’s recycling service is not funded by city taxes or federal grants, so their operating costs come entirely from the fees charged to recycling households, McAllister said.
“We have realized with charging a fee that people are dedicated to recycling right because of it,” McAllister said. “If you put out a can at every house, people might be putting stuff in that could be contaminating our load.”
Opelika decided to create a superhero to teach memorable, educational lessons on recycling, McAllister said. Captain R2O’s name stands for Recycle Right, Opelika.
“We have made up a story about how he’s been summoned by the mayor from the League of Environmental Services to come serve Opelika and teach our citizens about recycling,” McAllister said. “We’re just really excited to roll this out in hopes to grow local participation and encourage citizens to recycle right.”
The superhero’s goal is to reach more people, both through schools and through public events, McAllister said. The city wants to teach citizens how to properly recycle before pushing for recycling to be more widespread.
This recycling campaign was initially meant to last for a couple of months, but positive public reactions will keep it running longer, McAllister said.
The city will also soon release an app-based game show called “So You Think You Can Recycle?” McAllister said. It will test citizens and city employees alike on where recyclables can be recycled.
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