County Recycling - Putnam Sentinel
As with the other drop-off bins at the county’s recycling area, the bin designated for plastic has clear directions for residents. Plastic bags are a particular nuisance for recycling processors, as they can easily become entangled in machinery, resulting in costly delays and maintenance. (Putnam Sentinel/Martin Verni)

PUTNAM COUNTY — When visiting the Putnam County Recycling center located at the fairgrounds, most residents follow the directions posted. They separate their recycling materials, and deposit those materials into the correct bin.

When they do not, which occurs infrequently but more often than it should, the county usually does not discover the infraction until processing the material. This slows down the work and increases costs to the county, and by extension, its taxpayers. Certain materials, such as plastic bags, can even become stuck inside the gears of compactors and other equipment, resulting in even more costly maintenance and hours of additional delay.

Until recently, there was not much the county could do about the issue outside of continuing to educate the public. Now, as many residents are discovering through official letters in the mail and verbal warnings given at their door by Ottawa police officers and county deputies, consequences can indeed follow them home.

There are a number of cameras at the recycling center, and despite what some residents might believe, they all work. One is situated specifically to capture the license plate number of cars entering the area. The others keep a close eye on what is added to the bins. Whenever an item is found in a container that does not belong there, Alaina Siefker at the County Commissioners office views hours of recordings in order to catch the offender.

“Say county workers change the containers in the morning, and then find something thrown away that shouldn’t be later that next day,” says Siefker. “I have all of those hours to try and watch for it.”

At the very least, Siefker says she spends roughly three hours a week actively watching recordings while simultaneously doing other work for the county. “Somebody comes in, or the phone rings, and I’ll forget to hit pause,” Siefker says. “Then I have to rewind…At the same time, I find other people throwing away things they shouldn’t while watching for that original infraction.”

Following the identification of an infraction from the video, Siefker prints a screenshot showing the person placing non-recyclable items into the drop-off containers. The date and time of the infraction, as well as identifying details such as the license number of the offender’s car, are added to a document created by Siefker. Additional assistance in ascertaining identity is often provided by the Ottawa Police Department and the Sheriff’s office. The collected information is then forwarded to the county’s prosecutor.

The cameras have been in operation for approximately six months. The county has so far declined to prosecute any of the more than 30 offenders that have been found to be improperly disposing of non-recyclable items. However, that is expected to soon change. In order to emphasize the importance of following the rules at the recycling drop-off, the county expects prosecution to be necessary, an approach similar to the one many retail stores have taken with shoplifting.

“There was one guy,” begins Siefker, “When Ottawa PD talked to him, he said, ‘Well I looked in there, and there were other bags in there.’ So, problems create more problems.”

“We’re hoping that with these letters and word of mouth,” Siefker continues, “That people start realizing that just because someone else did something, doesn’t mean that they can do it too. And, we’re also hoping that when people see someone throwing some of those bigger items that everyone knows aren’t supposed to be in there, that they might call us. Then we can get that video right away.” (Calls should go to the county commissioner’s office: 419-523-3656)

The county is not alone in facing this issue of recycling contamination. As recently reported James McCarty in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “By some estimates, up to a quarter of all recyclables are rejected due to contamination or that they are unacceptable for recycling. Contaminants also can ruin the good recyclables, in which case the entire contents of the bin must be sent to the garbage dump.”

That same report, noted that China, “the world’s largest importer of U.S. recycled paper, plastic and cardboard,” has recently stopped accepting all recyclable material, citing contamination as the reason. This has increased pressure on governments, waste management companies, and recycling processors to reduce contamination.

“The people that we take our glass to in Dayton, they once threatened to take our load to the landfill because there was so much contamination,” Siefker says. “They could have charged us $600 just for one trip.”

As disappointing and potentially costly misuse can be for the county, Siefker also knows from viewing those many hours of video that the vast majority of residents are regularly sorting materials as they should and properly depositing those materials in the correct bin. She would very much like to thank these residents for setting an example that their neighbors, few as they may be, will hopefully start to consistently follow.

Information on county recycling, including which items can and cannot be recycled, can be found at: www.putnamcountyrecycles.com and by calling the commissioners’ office at 419-523-3656.