Now that Hattiesburg’s recycling program has gotten statewide attention, Mayor Toby Barker and other city officials are working to lift the program to higher level.
The Mississippi Recycling Coalition named the City of Hattiesburg as its "Local Government Recycler of the Year" for 2017 during the annual Recycling Legislative Awareness Day last week.
Barker, who accepted the award at the state Capitol with Sustainability Administrative Assistant Jacquline McClain and Sustainability Officer Nkrumah Frazier, said the honor only makes the city want to step up the recycling program. Barker had challenged City Hall officials to get 25 recycling signups each month.
“People now have confidence in their recycling program,” Barker said. “We have gotten the word out and we have met that goal each of the first four months of the fiscal year. I am incredibly proud to be recognized as the best local recycling program in the state.”
More than two years of mishandling of recyclable materials affecting 156 residents of Ward 4 shook the foundation of the recycling program. Greg Ladner, assistant to Barker, led the investigation that turned up the improprieties from Jan. 1, 2015, to July 15, 2017.
Barker said officials worked hard to rebound from the early problems.
“We arrived in July and we had to take stock of our program,” he said. “We had some deficiencies that had caused a breach of trust among people in the community. Before we even considered trying to expand or forge some new frontiers, we had to take care of the problem.
“With the leadership of Greg Ladner, Samantha (McCain, Hattiesburg’s Chief Communications Officer) and Nkrumah, we were able to identify the problem and fix the process issue. Also, we had just some other inefficiencies. For instance, the signup process was so cumbersome; there was no workflow defined internally. When a new signup came in, who received it and who then notified Public Works to get them a can. So, we fixed a lot of those process issues and turned them around.”
Setting a goal of 25 new signups each month spurred recycling, Barker said.
“Then we also said we are not only going to fix the issues, we are going to grow the program and really leverage this into an opportunity to show the best of Hattiesburg,” he said. “We set the goal at 25 signups a month and each of first four months, we are on track to do that. I think we have 126 through the fiscal year since Oct. 1.”
The recycling explosion in Hattiesburg earned the city the statewide award, Barker said.
“We’re obviously honored to receive that award because it signified our ability to take a challenge, put collective minds around it and turn it into a real strength for the city,” he said. “If we can apply that to some of the other challenges we face, we’re going to be in great shape in a few years.”
The next step? Barker said education is a key.
“You saw the first foray into that with the video we put out in January,” he said. “We want to go into the schools, but we want to do it the right way. We may form a partnership before the end of this school year, a sort of a pilot to determine what a recycling education in-person would look like.”
Barker said he wants to go into one or two schools this fall. “Get it right before we keep growing it.”
Frazier also talked about recycling education during the city’s Arbor Day Program. He also discussed making effective lifestyle changes.
“We needed an effective education program that was getting that information out,” he said. “Not only are trying impress people to recycle, but we are also trying to change their mindset. We are trying to encourage people to use reusable bottles for bottled water or carry their own shopping bags. If you go to the grocery store and buy $200 in groceries, a reusable shopping bag is not going to do you any good. But if it’s just for a few items, bring along a shopping bag to save that waste. We’re just trying to get people to think about it.”
Barker also stressed access to recycling opportunities.
“We do residences right now and we do sort of like neighborhood businesses that on residential streets, for example, South 25th Street,” he said. “Expanding into more businesses and putting something out there for apartments are the priorities. I think diversifying what we can take is important; we have a lot of requests for glass. That’s a longer-term investigation that we can do.”
The recycling program has to consider long-term goals, but not too soon, Barker said.
“What are we doing to be a more sustainable community?” he asked. “What are we doing to be an example to other progressive communities? All of those things have to work together and each domino has to fall. You have to get one thing done before you go to the next step.”