City of San JoseThe City of San José’s Environmental Services Department has conducted a successful pilot program to improve residents’ recycling behavior by providing recycling cart lids with trilingual (English, Spanish and Vietnamese) labels showing what is recyclable and what isn’t.

The labels in the pilot were molded into the cart lids and feature images of recyclables and nonrecyclables along with easy-to-understand text in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

The program, conducted this spring, sampled recycling material from nearly 5,000 single-family homes along five collection routes in north and east San José where the graphic labels had been distributed. The contamination rates along those routes dropped by an average of 20 percent.

The citywide contamination rate in 2020 was 51 percent. The average contamination rate for the 4,767 homes in the pilot project was 73 percent.

Recycling contamination occurs when garbage or other nonrecyclable material is placed in recycling carts and when recyclable containers are not emptied of food and liquid. It makes sorting recyclables and finding a market for them more challenging and expensive for processors, which can lead to higher rates for residential customers.

“Our pilot program shows we can make a big difference in recycling behavior by providing residents with information right where they recycle,” said Kerrie Romanow, Director of the Environmental Services Department. “We will be rolling out more of these cart lids in phases, beginning with the most contaminated routes.”

The study determined the cart lids with educational information were particularly effective at decreasing contamination in areas with very high contamination rates. The largest decrease occurred among 956 households on a route whose contamination rate, which was 81 percent before the pilot, dropped by 35 percent.

Recycling contamination worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, as San José residents spent more time at home and generated more waste. During the period of April-December 2019 to April-December 2020, single-family homes generated:

  • 8 percent more garbage
  • 17 percent more recycling
  • 33 percent more recycling residue (non-recyclable material removed from recyclables during the sorting process)

While the amount of garbage increased, the City did not see an increase in residents’ requests for larger garbage carts, which means some residents likely placed extra garbage in their recycling carts. Environmental Services encourages residents to upsize to a larger garbage cart when needed and recommends purchasing Extra Garbage Stickers for occasional use when they have more garbage than their cart can handle. Residents can visit, dial 3-1-1 or call (408) 535-3500 to request larger carts. Extra Garbage Stickers are available at City Hall and San José Safeway and Lucky stores.

The pilot was part of a comprehensive, trilingual Recycle Right outreach campaign to inform residents about how to recycle properly. Among the campaign’s many features is, a website that includes a recycling guide that shows what goes where, tips and articles, and a variety of other resources. The website has garnered more than 500,000 users since its 2019 launch.