Recycling Outreach: Getting People to Play Ball
Single-stream is gaining acceptance…with the help of public education activities.
“I’m Dan, the Recycling Man!” may sound a bit cheesy, according to Daniel Ruiz, who came up with the jingle, but it’s helped bring Brooklyn Park, MN, continuing success with its recycling efforts.
Ruiz is the support services recycling manager for Brooklyn Park. He has his own page, “Talking Trash with Dan” in the city newsletter. “At every community event we attend, people approach my table and say ‘Dan! You’re Dan the Recycling Man!’ The same thing happens when they phone me. Schools want me to come and talk to their classes. It’s been a positive message being consistent in all media, TV, radio, and Internet blog. We’re working on doing more in the area of social media such as Facebook.” Ruiz finds it easy to come up with a new blog topic on recycling each month.
This community now uses the single-sort recycling system for its curbside recycling program. It contracts with Waste Management as its one hauler for the recycling side. It was the first city to do such a contracting move in Minnesota, in 2002. “It was a successful switch,” says Ruiz, “Most communities see a 20% increase in recycling volumes with such a move; we saw this as well. But we’ve already gone back to our pre-single-sort numbers. Our recycling numbers have also dropped as the economy has dropped and with changes in the industry in terms of fewer newspapers, smaller newspapers, and the light weight of aluminum and plastic containers.
“On one hand, recyclers could say we’re fighting an uphill battle; but, on the other hand, it’s waste reduction. It’s not a bad thing that there is less material out there. In terms of measuring success, we’ve shifted from just measuring the pounds we’ve recovered to more of a recovery rate. What percent of the recyclables available are we collecting. That’s a number that we haven’t quite come up with yet, but we’re going to be doing some waste sorts to find that out.”
Based on the results of other cities in the area, the community wants to be in the 70% to 80% range of recovery rates. Success is measured on a cost-per-ton basis: what it is costing per ton of recyclables. Last year the community was at $68 dollars per ton for the program. “We see that going down considerably this year because we signed a new revenue-sharing contract with Waste Management,” says Ruiz. “The revenue share has been a windfall. For just our recycling contract costs, we’re close to being at breakeven levels for this year. The normal costs are about $500,000. If you do the math, we’re close to getting that amount in revenue share for this year. Everyone should take advantage of this program. It’s working out well for us and was an easy decision.”
About one-fourth of the homes in this area of the US have been foreclosed on in the past year, with a huge turnover in Brooklyn Park. Re-educating new residents is a challenge. One-half of the city is newer-than-1995 housing stock. The other half of the city goes back to the 1950s-through-1970s housing stock, with a consolidation of wealth in one half of the city.
Half of the city has big houses with overflowing recycling carts, and half of the city has single-car garages with families that don’t even want a cart because they have no room for it, according to Ruiz. “We’re not quite able to keep up with the wealthier suburbs of Minneapolis in terms of pounds of recyclables. Since we’re focusing on the recovery rate, it doesn’t matter how many people are in the house or how many car stalls you have. Just recycle what you can in your house. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
Going door to door is expensive, but with a grant from a local agency the program was able to do so, contacting 1,500 households. The program is keeping an eye on its numbers in these designated neighborhoods and has seen recycling numbers stabilized in some areas, increasing in others. It’s a challenge to visit each house door to door, if not an impossibility, but face-to-face contact has been found to be effective.
“When we had the face-to-face contact, we found 10% of households visited got a larger container or didn’t have a container and then went and got one. Grab them at home, and you’ve got them. City newsletters don’t catch that many people, nor do newspapers. We’ve never done focus groups. Issuing a recycling guide on an eight-by-11-inch sheet of paper, color-coded to show recyclable materials and surveys, has proved useful, too. Other areas have more sorts for their recyclables—seven sorts in Minneapolis, two in St. Paul. Here in Brooklyn Park we have only one, and that keeps things simple. We can capture the new recyclables faster—and we’re the only city in Minnesota that recycles scrap metal.”
Capturing the away-from-home material is a challenge. “Gas stations don’t want the additional costs of putting out recycling containers, and apartment unit recycling is a big gorilla, too,” according to Ruiz. “When it’s minus-20 degrees in the middle of the winter, people at apartment units don’t want to have to track down the recycling bins.”
On the job, Ruiz made sure the city was leading by example. He bought hard plastic containers to go underneath everyone’s desks. Employees can place yogurt containers, office paper, and aluminum cans in there. “Now there is no excuse; the cans don’t have to go in the trash just because there’s no time to walk 20 steps to the recycling container down the hall. We’ve increased recycling 10% in city facilities.”
|Recycling is a local issue nationwide.
The Push for Single-Stream
Other municipalities have been willing to share with MSW Management what works and what doesn’t in their distinctive recycling programs. For example, Mitch Kessler’s firm, Kessler Consulting Inc., is in Tampa, FL. Work takes the company around the country, particularly to the Southeast and mostly within the public sector. The company works with some 24 counties and 10 cities to design, implement, and optimize their solid waste programs, particularly those in waste reduction, recycling, and composting.
Kessler rises to the challenge of dealing with different locations in optimizing programs for clients. “My firm doesn’t do engineering or design work—simply program optimization,” explains Kessler. “We work on making collection more efficient, MRFs more efficient—contracting work—including how to increase their recycling rates.”
Solid waste is a service business; the service providers, calling companies, MRF operators, and consultants all serve the customer. “Our work is to see what we can do to make it as effective and efficient for the person to partake, and to communicate that message so they know what their responsibility is. I say it’s government’s job to make it as easy as possible to partake; then they just do it, there is no issue.”
Industry trends make it easier for people to partake in single-stream recycling. “If you make it easier for a business or resident to put it all in this one container, participation rates go up. Not only is it easier because you have one container, but the message becomes easier.”
When participation rates stay low due to an overly complicated message—too many details on what to put where and when—Kessler’s answer is simple: Put in all fiber, all paper, and all plastics, and let the processing center sort out the problem. “I’m not suggesting putting in contaminants. But if you go to your average person and start trying to give them instructions about what to do and what not to do, they say ‘forget about it.’
“I’m big on taking that burden from your customer. Design and set up your program so it’s as simple as possible. Go with all-paper-all-plastics programs, and you get more of the kind of containers that you’re looking for, the soda and water bottles. You might get some stuff you don’t need, but that’s okay. It’s going to the landfill anyway.”
Kessler sees customer-service-based work trending nationally toward single-stream. Local government has the job of good, clear communication in this regard. Kessler’s extensive pilot program on single-stream in Charleston, SC, compared different types of collection trucks and other variables.
“The bottom line is, the countywide average participation rate was between 35% and 40%. We doubled that by letting them know in advance about a swapping of their bins with a 95-gallon cart, through postcard mailing, radio, and the newspaper. In a sustainable manner, this doubled the rate of participation for six months and doubled the rate of tons placed out.
“Communicate what you’re asking people to do, do it, and make it simple. This is about including people, not excluding them. We place an expensive radio frequency chip inside the containers to evaluate who partakes, how often, and when the container’s set out. We then follow up in this case, sending a special mailing to the homes not partaking, saying, ‘We’ve noticed you haven’t been setting out recyclables. As you’re aware, we’re running an automated pilot in your neighborhood. Our data tells us recycling rates, and we’d love to see what we could do to help you participate.’ Just sending out that card got us a nice bump again. Half of the people not partaking stepped back into the program.”
Kessler is most interested in what’s happening in an individual jurisdiction and what’s been done to reduce the amount of tons being disposed. The measurement in that community is all that counts. “Know your neighbor, but mind your own business first,” adds Kessler. “We’ve also done work in economically challenged neighborhoods to see what we can do to get them to partake more. I’m a big believer in focus groups when you are trying to test a product or see which ‘flavor’ is a better fit.
“From a political prospective, doing focus groups and surveys of the public can put off taking action. The public doesn’t necessarily need to know the results of such studies of various levels of service. If you can’t tell the public what the price difference will be, how are they going to have an opinion? I’m not a big fan of overly surveying. My thing is design the best program you can, make it simple, and communicate it. All programs, all issues are local.
“Garbage is a local issue. Everyone is important to reach by whatever messages or languages or the size of the community. Approaches need customizing for each situation. Keep the message simple, communicate clearly, serve the customer, and identify your objectives.
“For every ton they dispose of, it costs the county money because they have to pay a disposal fee at the landfill. For every ton they recover, they receive revenue back. Our firm tries to be effective and efficient with our clients’ money. I think the shift under way is starting to view waste as a resource, as waste has materials recoverable, recyclable, compostable, and convertible to green energy.”
No More Operational Zones or Managed Competition
Under the single-stream recycling plan, the City of Charlotte, NC, moved from a managed competition business model and began operating in an optimized environment. This change eliminated the need for the old operational zone collection model in which each zone had separate contracts and budgets.
With the new single-stream recycling collection system, Solid Waste Services consolidated garbage, yardwaste, and bulky-item collection programs into optimized citywide service categories. The conversion allowed Solid Waste Services to realize a number of departmental and citywide efficiencies that included economies of scale, cost reduction, and cost avoidance in several budget areas.
The program measures its success by collecting data for the following areas: tonnage, participation rate, and diversion rates. Within its Strategic Operating Plan, it set corporate objectives and initiatives and created goals to measure performance annually. Since the transition to single-stream recycling a year ago, Solid Waste Services has noticed a 30% increase in residential recycling tonnage. This exceeded the goal of 20% established for the first year of single-stream recycling.
In addition to the increase in recyclables collected, Solid Waste Services also noted the overall single-family recycling participation rate is now 50%, meaning approximately 50% of all households are setting recyclables out on their collection day. This is an increase of 19% as compared to last year’s participation rate of 42%. Also noted during the first year of single-stream recycling was that garbage tonnage decreased by approximately 7%.
The program monitors service quality by ensuring that the number of citizen complaints in the Charlotte area is at least one-quarter lower than the statewide average. Fiscally, success has meant a savings of approximately $1.5 million realized last year.
A 2009 Recycling Study conducted by Mecklenburg County revealed Charlotte recyclers tend to be somewhat older, more educated, and more likely to be Caucasian. Recycling households are less likely to have only one adult and more likely to have higher household incomes. The presence of children in the household appears equally likely for both recycling and non-recycling households.
“However, we should also realize that these findings are not absolute and must take into consideration that many lower-income households do participate in recycling,” says Esperanza Dash, waste reduction analyst for the City of Charlotte. “Yet many higher-income households do not participate in recycling.
“Typically, surveys have been conducted using participants randomly selected. All participant information is gathered by via data collected from households eligible for City of Charlotte residential collection services. Our participants represent the diverse group of people that reside in our area.”
There are several strategies that work well for Charlotte, including social media to communicate with residents. Reaching residents via the Speakers Bureau program is effective. “Attendance and participation at neighborhood meetings is an area we’re looking into improving. We measure our public education effectiveness through targets and goals set at the beginning of the year. We also use participation and contamination rates as measuring tools. It is very important to be able to measure success within organizations because it helps you to remain focused on company core goals, vision, and missions, and promotes growth and development within your organization.”
The City has a Public Service Division providing internal and external communication for its residents. “We also have outreach programs and ongoing efforts within our organization, such as Curb It! and Recycle It! programs we promote through neighborhood symposiums and public events. We also require a $50,000 annual expenditure for public education as one of the terms of our residential recycling collection contract.”
Controlling Message Overlap
Hamilton, ON, has a mix of urban, suburban, and rural demographics. The City provides curbside collection to all those areas. It has a good direct-mail communication network in its community. But it finds itself challenged by the overlap of media from nearby Toronto, according to Dennis Guy, project manager for outreach in waste management with the City of Hamilton.
“There is the Toronto Star, several national newspapers, several key TV and radio stations bleeding this way. Since the recycling programs in Ontario vary from municipality to municipality, these larger media outlets are promoting different program rules among other things, such as special things going in your blue box and when it’s collected. That’s why we tend to meet that challenge with a direct-mail piece.”
The community does have a daily local paper and local weeklies. But the larger media sources are difficult to counteract. This leads to confusion in general, according to Guy. Hamilton is close to a lot of other developed areas, and the places people work may not have the same disposal policies as where they live. So, they’ll receive such comments as “Putting my coffee container in the blue bin is how they want it done at work; why do I have to put it in my green bin at home?”
Focus has shifted toward word of mouth, meeting people directly through umbrella groups that subsequently spread the word. For instance, instead of going to every single teacher, the community taps into the network of a group of teachers meeting monthly to talk about environmental issues. “We’ll go there and provide them materials to spread out to their networks or neighborhood associations, faith groups, or whatever other sets of individuals they’re in contact with,” adds Guy.
“We promote anyone contacting us through our blogs or Facebook. This updates information everyone’s getting immediately—and at no cost. Instead of responding to only one individual’s question, we’re able to tell the answer to anyone subscribing to us. This encourages ongoing interaction and further questions, responses to a whole group, not just one person.”
Guy feels participation rates are nice to know but they don’t necessarily tell how well they’re being accomplished. The program goes deeper and looks at capture rates, which essentially tell you where people are putting things. If their rates are high, people are putting materials in the right bin, and the right sorting behavior is taking place.
Hamilton has a one-bag limit per week. Compliance is studied, meaning the number of people able to comply with the one-bag limit versus the number they’re tagging and leaving behind. Some of the social media metrics available are also looked at, from website hits to number of followers or subscribers. “It doesn’t necessarily tell you active participation and certainly doesn’t tell you about diversion as a whole. But our number-one measurement we like to see is certainly capture rate.”
Hamilton is a very diverse city ethnically, but it hasn’t yet done any research linking recycling behavior with demographics. The studies show women in the households tend to be the keepers of the knowledge on recycling and to be the motivators, but only by a small margin.
“What we’re finding is if we have a general idea of a target audience or area of the city we want to focus on, we will go into one of those pre-established networks and work with that group, ask them where they’re already meeting, and try to bring all that together to see the different views. We also tailor communications accordingly depending on the scope of the project, as it can get really expensive.
“We’ve even gone into focus groups and found the dynamic we created wasn’t all that worthwhile or positive, so we’ve gone out into grocery stores where people are shopping for the food that will often end up in the green carts, and we’ve done in-store surveys as an alternate method of collecting that data. Definitely, some method of us going to them instead having our audience come to us is preferable. Not only do we get the data, but we get the opportunity to answer questions and educate at the same time.”
“Keeners,” or avid recyclers, are good to reach, according to Guy. They’ll spread the word for you. People are much more likely to listen to neighbors than someone from the City. They have more credibility.
People don’t really buy a newspaper to read the ads, he says. With Facebook, they’ve chosen to follow you and are thinking, “Hey, when you have something to say, tell me; I’m listening.” They also take the approach that every employee is a marketing employee. They need to be well equipped to do their job but also answer recycling questions if asked.
|Photo: City of Hamilton, ON
The City of Hamilton’s blue and gold bins for “Keeners”
Countering Some Traditions in Waste Disposal
The South Central Iowa Solid Waste Agency, near Des Moines, borders but doesn’t include the state’s largest metropolitan area. This regional government covers four Iowa counties with a diversity of programs. It’s an ethnically homogenous farming area with some large industries.
The agency’s facilities receive a full spectrum of waste from the area. Its board decided 10–15 years ago that it wasn’t going to get involved in the direct provision of residential recycling services or recycling processing.
The agency does some recycling collection onsite for typical residential recyclables, onsite being at its landfill and at its transfer station for Poweshiek County. It also does recycling collection onsite for items in large measure banned from landfill disposal, such as tires, appliances, and electronic wastes.
Various area communities take different approaches to recycling, collection, and processing.
“Our solid waste agency really can’t do this great one-size-fits-all advertising campaign talking about a single-stream recycling program; it doesn’t exist,” explains Sara Bixby, director of the SCISWA. “People make that assumption, but it doesn’t really happen for the more rural areas in a lot of cases.
“One of our challenges is to get the message out about our services and our facilities, but we also can’t stray specifically into those areas that are directly related to individual community recycling programs. For instance, we might run an ad asking the reader, when they’re done reading their newspaper to please recycle it; we don’t say, ‘Please recycle it by doing this with it.’”
Tailoring the message also affects what they say when they go out and talk to public groups or kids, according to Bixby. In a rural area they would not talk to kids about how great curbside recycling is and for them to tell mom and dad to put various items out by the curb for pickup. That’s encouraging them to do something they’re unable to do.
“It’s even tough to go in and say, ‘Hey, recycle!’ because there may not even be a drop box in that area. Sometimes our message is much more basic and consists simply of ‘Don’t burn it in the backyard or dump it in the neighbor’s ditch.’ We end up trying to counter the message kids may get at home.”
The SCISWA has two common themes in all of its education and outreach. One is the “how to,” as in “Here’s how to recycle electronics, get rid of old pharmaceuticals, or reach the landfill.” The second is all about changing mindsets. That tends to get a little bit edgy.
“We’re trying to challenge longstanding preconceived notions about acceptable ways to dispose of your waste or to handle something. Sometimes we’re a little sarcastic, sometimes kind of outrageous, or sometimes we go for funny. But in everything we put out there—and we use a mix of radio, newspapers, billboards or posters—our goal is to catch people’s attention.”
Bixby says she’s had more phone calls than ever this past year, more people walking in, saying they overheard something or heard an ad on the radio. People are responding to the edgy ads and the feedback suggests that the message has stuck in their heads. “I think we’re getting our message out there.”
Peter Hildebrandt writes extensively on engineering and scientific subjects.