Earlier this year, Waterford Township, a small town in Camden County, New Jersey, realized it had a recycling problem.
Dave Chiddenton, the chair of Waterford Township Environmental Commission (WTEC), received a letter from the recycling company Republic Services, which serves Camden County. It stated that 37 percent of the town’s recyclables were “contaminated” by non-recyclable materials. If residents didn’t drastically reduce that number, the town would be slapped with a hefty fine.
Dave’s first thought? “Well, it’s good timing,” he said. He had just signed up for a recycling workshop at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority (ACUA) in Egg Harbor Township. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to learn how the town could improve its recycling practices.
And learn he did. Over the course of this past summer, Chiddenton and WTEC—including Terri Chiddenton, the secretary, Clean Communities coordinator and Dave’s wife—brushed up on Republic Services recycling guidelines and carried out an aggressive public information campaign to spread the word. Their efforts won them a 2019 Achievement Award from ANJEC (Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions) on Oct. 4, and successfully slashed the Waterford Township’s contamination rate.
A National Crisis
According to Dave, that first ACUA workshop opened his eyes to the hardships facing the recycling industry in his county and across the nation.
“We got to see basically all the non-recyclable materials that they had to sort through and just the time and the labor that was put into that was mind-boggling,” he said.
Like many recycling facilities, ACUA and Republic Services are struggling in the wake of China’s National Sword Policy. The country was once the world’s largest buyer of recyclable materials, but in early 2018, it passed a law banning scrap materials and lowering the maximum contamination rate—or, the amount of non-recyclable material accepted in a batch—to an extremely strict 0.5 percent.
“We learned that it’s like a stock market,” Dave said. “What goes on that floor, they need to find buyers for that material.”
And while municipal recycling centers scramble to find new buyers to replace China, they’re also inundated with contaminated batches from well-intentioned households who don’t know what does and doesn’t belong in their blue bins—batches that end up in the trash, or worse. Philadelphia made headlines earlier this year for incinerating half of its recyclables.
A Green Power Couple
However, Dave doesn’t blame the residents of Waterford Township for the high levels of contamination. The rules, he said, are complicated and constantly shifting. In fact, he’s still figuring them out himself.
“I had a bottle of iced tea the other day, and looked at the bottom and it’s a seven,” he said, referring to the number assigned to the type of plastic. He recently learned that the local recycling center only accepted types one and two. “Normally I would have never thought to even look. I know this is a recyclable plastic container, so I would normally just throw that right in the recycling bin, but it’s really trash.”
It’s a feat for Dave to be surprised by anything when it comes to recycling. Before he retired and dedicated his time to WTEC, he was the public works manager in Voorhees Township. In fact, it was his job to transition the town to the current statewide single-stream recycling system, which allows all types of recyclables to be thrown into the same bin.
Both Dave and his Terri are born and raised in South Jersey. Dave is from Haddon Township, while Terri is from the neighboring town of Collingswood. The two were high school sweethearts.
Terri said she’s had an aversion to litter her whole life. She carried it with her when the couple moved to Waterford Township, where they have lived for 34 years.
“The reason I got onto the environmental commission, a fellow who was already on the commission saw me picking up litter on the side of the road,” Terri said. “And the mayor at the time gave me an accommodation and then I was asked if I wanted to be on the environmental commission.”
For three years, Terri, a retired elementary school teacher, would attend regular meetings and recap them to her husband, who was then retired from his job in public works.
“I’d come home and I’d say things to Dave like, ‘Oh, they’re worried about the stormwater but there’s no access to cleaning the drains’ and he would get so frustrated,’” she said. “He’s like, ‘Did you tell them this, did you tell them that?’ I was like, ‘No, cause I don’t know to tell them this and that!’ So I said, ‘If this bothers you so much then why don’t you join?’”
Dave took her advice and was eventually promoted to chair of WTEC. The two have been joining forces ever since. Terri said that they work well together since he often balances out her drive and determination with a more relaxed approach.
“He has such a great sense of humor,” Terri said. “And sometimes I’m like a plow. Like last night, we had a meeting, and I was like, ‘Let me tell you this, this, and this’ and Dave would say, ‘You know, they do want to go home.’”
Clarity and Collaboration
But both Terri and Dave knew that determination and drive were the ingredients needed to better inform the town about the dos and don’ts of recycling. Dave began the campaign by calling up recycling coordinators from other South Jersey towns, like Cape May and Egg Harbor Township, to ask for tips.
“If you want to find out how things should get done, use as many heads to solve the problem as you can,” he said.
Dave was impressed with ACUA and Egg Harbor Township’s joint campaign to inspect curbside bins before trash pickup and label them with notes providing feedback. He wanted to try something similar in Waterford Township, so he teamed up with neighboring town Berlin in order to make an educational poster and corresponding sticker that communicates Republic Services’ guidelines. When designing it, Dave said that clarity was key.
“It is as plain and understandable as you can be. And we meant to do it that way,” he said. “We have pictures of what goes in the can and then there’s a big red ‘No’ for what does not go into that recycling can. You can’t make a mistake.”
Members of WTEC handed out the posters at local events, posted them on social media and placed them in public places, like the town hall and library. They also, with the help of part-time summer township employees, canvassed the town on regular trash days to place the stickers on residents’ recycling bins. Within five days, they had labeled 3,800 bins.
But not everyone remembers to put out their bins on trash day. Everyone does, however, get mailed a tax bill. That’s why WTEC decided to also put an insert of the poster in the tax bills of all Waterford residents.
CURBING CURBSIDE CRITICISM
Resident feedback was less than positive, at first.
“They were angry because they thought we were the recycling police,” Dave said. “They thought that we were basically going to be rejecting their cans and have them not be picked up.”
Residents also accused WTEC of spending tax dollars on the public information campaign, when in fact, the money to print the stickers and employ part-time summer workers was secured by Terri, who applied for a grant from New Jersey Clean Communities, a statewide program that funds local anti-litter projects. Plus, year-round WTEC members are unpaid.
“One guy challenged me and he says, ‘And this is where my tax dollars go?’” Dave recalled from one of his curbside canvassing trips. “He says, ‘We pay our township employees to drive around a new Toyota Tundra?’ I said, ‘Sir, this is my private vehicle. This is my gasoline. These are volunteer workers.’”
Dave soon learned that, since money was the source of many residents’ complaints, it may also be the source of their support. In talking with neighbors about the campaign, he always tries to emphasize that WTEC’s efforts are aimed at lowering residents’ taxes, not raising them.
“It’s not like [I’m] trying to be a tree hugger,” he said. “When they catch wind that we’re going to be getting fines and our recycling rates are going to keep going up and up and up…They’re rather nice about that now.”
Terri had her own method for handling criticism. As the secretary of WTEC, she’s responsible for posting on social media and often fields angry comments on Facebook.
“So many times people are ready to fight,” she said. “Service with a smile. Everything that I post on our Facebook (page) is always positive. Try to stay light and airy and happy and pleasant.”
And clearly, it’s paid off. Dave and Terri said that the program has slowly been embraced by the town. And not only has it been accepted—it’s been effective. According to Republic Services, WTEC’s recycling program reduced the town’s contamination rate from 37 percent to 20 percent.
The fight isn’t over. Dave said that stickers are still available throughout town, and WTEC will continue to spread its slogan, ”When in doubt, throw it out,” on social media. Dave and Terri are also attempting to encourage the town to focus on reducing waste entirely, rather than just disposing of it properly. The commission gives out free aluminum water bottles when it can, and members recently spoke at a local Boy Scouts meeting, encouraging kids to keep a log of what their families buy and question whether the products are actually needed.
But still, it’s a relief to know that the immediate threat—of contamination fines—is gone. For now, Terri and Dave can rest easy.
“Obviously, we’ve proven that we’re in a good position right now,” Dave said. “So I think we won the war.”
This story was produced in collaboration with the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting Hub project. It was originally reported by Brianna Baker for the Green Philly, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.