The Keys to an Effective Recycling Program
We have spent a lot of time listening to stakeholders to understand the struggles they face in delivering effective curbside recycling programs. Too many towns and cities are investing significant amounts of money in their recycling initiatives, however too much recyclable material still ends up in our landfills, diversion rates are stagnating and it is a struggle to understand why. But fear not, there are success stories out there. I have found some useful resources that discuss the attributes of successful recycling programs including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Municipal Government Tool Kit; The 2016 State of Curbside Recycling Report; and Recycling in Michigan - Successful Recycling programs, Best Practices and Diversion Potential.
These reports touch on a number of variables including, but not limited to, weekly versus bi-weekly recycling collection; single stream versus dual stream recycling; and the use of larger recycling containers versus small bins or bags at the curbside. There are a lot of factors that come into play when weighing these options including cost, infrastructure and accessibility so it is certainly not a one size fits all solution. However, there are two fundamentals in successful recycling programs which can be applied in any community:
Measurement and reporting.
Communication. It is critical to engage with residents about the importance and benefits of recycling and with so many different platforms available to deliver this message (social media, website, e-mail, direct mail etc.) it is relatively easy and cost effective to engage and communicate with your community. An important point noted in the EPA Municipal Government Tool Kit is that when conducting outreach to residents, you should think of the public in two distinct groups: those who recycle and those who don't. For those who recycle, the messaging is tailored towards instruction and education versus promotion. For those who do not recycle, the messaging requires a little more creativity and the focus should be on appealing to the positive gains that come from recycling rather than heavy handed and guilt ridden messages about saving the environment.
Measurement and reporting is the second fundamental in delivering an effective recycling program, which in my opinion, is a precursor to communication. Successful recycling programs must be able to track and benchmark recycling performance, including participation rates, volume of recycling and trends in diversion rates. This information is then shared with the community in an easy to understand format so people know how their recycling efforts are contributing to the greater good -and- for those who don't recycle, it serves as a passive form of peer pressure to encourage recycling. In order to measure and report you need systems and processes that can capture this information at a granular level (route, neighborhood and household). For example, without data that captures recycling participation how do you distinguish and communicate with those who currently recycle and those who do not? Furthermore, as noted above, certain decisions related to a recycling program such as moving from a bi-weekly to weekly collection or introducing curbside roll carts for recycling, can have significant cost implications so it is very important that these decisions are made based on data supported analysis.
Delivering an effective curbside recycling program is not an easy task and what works in some jurisdictions may not work in others for a variety of reasons. However, if the foundation of your program is built on a solid communication plan and an investment has been made in measuring and reporting the results of the program, you are on the right path to getting the ROI and results needed to consider your program a success.