By Namju Cho and Tiffany Jonick
In 2009, S. Groner Associates partnered with the Zero Waste Communities of San Bernardino County program and the City of San Bernardino, a suburb about 60 miles east of Downtown Los Angeles, on a social marketing campaign to reduce contamination in the residential sector.
The pilot campaign lasted six months including a pre- and post-waste assessment as well as several mailers. The pilot project resulted in a 25-percentage-point increase in recycling and 25-percentage-point decrease in blue bin contamination. The results exceeded the goal by more than 20 percentage points.
The city of San Bernardino’s curbside recycling collection has historically seen relatively high rates of contamination at 40% when compared with contamination rates of 23% in nearby cities. At the onset of the project, we did a waste characterization study at the local material recycling facility (MRF) to establish baseline numbers—blue bin contamination was at 45.5%.
The waste characterization showed that people were recycling—only they weren’t doing it correctly. We needed them to get the appropriate materials in the bin, and keep the refuse out of the blue bin. To map out a game plan to do just that, we took it to the residents.
Working with the area’s influential neighborhood association, we held a focus group of about eight residents to get their perspective on recycling. We wanted to understand what their barriers and motivators to recycling were. What would make it easier for them? What makes recycling more difficult?
At the focus group, we quizzed residents by holding up different materials and having people say if they thought the material should go in the recycle bin, the trash, or whether they weren’t sure. There were some obvious ones, like empty water bottles, but we also threw in trickier ones like glass that was full of contents as well as empty glass. Through this activity, we found that the residents had a tendency to over-recycle. That is, when they were in doubt about an item, they tended to put it in the recycling bin.
One resident recounted how her five-year-old son already knew that plastic bottles and cans were recyclable because he learned through observing what his parents do on a daily basis. When he helps clear the kitchen table, she did not have to tell him to put the cans or bottles in the recyclables, because he routinely did it.
The focus group also revealed that a primary barrier to proper recycling was a lack of knowledge and confusion as to what could or could not be recycled. Focus group participants also recommended several actionable pieces to reduce the barriers associated with proper recycling, including providing a list of what can and cannot be recycled and correspondence from the City. Area residents viewed the City as a very credible source when it came to providing information about recycling. This insight provided direction as to the materials that would be developed for the campaign.
“I didn’t realize that people didn’t recycle because they didn’t know what can and can’t be recycled—it seemed like an actionable solution. So we gave them the information and that helped a lot,” said Deborah Allen, an environmental projects manager at the City of San Bernardino who oversaw the project.
First, to overcome residents’ confusion as to what is and is not recyclable, SGA produced an 11-inch-by-4-inch rectangular magnet, clearly illustrating accepted recyclables as well as common items that aren’t recyclable. This magnet aimed to overcome residents’ confusion about accepted recyclables by providing a visual guide. The magnet was also meant to act as a prompt, to be placed in proximity to the location of the target behavior (waste disposal): the kitchen trashcan. The magnet was also accompanied by a letter from the City explaining the magnet and giving residents a heads-up that they would be receiving a monthly postcard reminding residents of key items that could and could not go in the recycling bin. The letter from the City stemmed from the idea that pilot area residents saw the City as a credible source of recycling information.
To guide correct recycling behaviors, we distributed monthly postcards focusing on a specific recyclable and actions they could take to recycle properly. In these postcards, we promoted one recyclable and one unacceptable item (i.e., what should be kept out of the recycling bin) each month through postal mail postcards. Prominent social psychologists like Dan Ariely have proved through case studies that people are more likely to engage in the desired behavior if given very specific steps in small pieces so it’s not overwhelming to tackle. It’s the difference between “Save our planet” and “recycle your clean, empty glass bottles.” Which are you more likely to do right now?
We used the baseline waste characterization as a source to prioritize which items to promote as unacceptable: The most commonly found contaminants, such as foodwaste or plastic bags, were promoted as unacceptables.
These monthly highlights were further promoted through several channels, including the program website and the neighborhood association’s monthly newsletter, The NAG. The neighborhood association newsletter was an effective channel, as the echoed message came from an established, trusted source within the community.
After the six-month pilot program, contamination was reduced from 45.5% to 20.7%. The city manager acknowledged the project’s efforts, and the City was then able to incorporate its supporting staff on the operations side to expand its knowledge about the successes and challenges of the pilot program and its ramifications.
To ensure the program was sustainable, the City went back to the initial pilot area seven months later and saw that contamination remained at 20%.
In terms of the concept of social marketing, these campaigns incorporated the aspects of uncovering barriers and benefits.
Following are challenges and lessons learned from this project.
Neighborhood association—It helped to work with a trusted source in the community. The local group helped to recruit participants for the focus group and provided the venue for the meeting. It also helped to promote the materials developed to raise awareness around what can and can’t be recycled.
Know your audience—Interacting with our target audience through the focus group and the surveys was extremely valuable. It gave us a sense of barriers and motivators residents faced. Because we ran the focus group in collaboration with the neighborhood associations, residents could put a face to the program rather than it being a faceless, top-down measure mandated by the government.
Use of prompts—This was embodied in the magnet, as it reminded people of what was and wasn’t recyclable close to the location where they were about to recycle.
Specific actions—Through the monthly postcard, we gave residents specific actions to take each month (e.g., focus on glass going into the blue bin this month and keeping foodwaste out), which helped to keep the residents focused rather than feeling overwhelmed with too many items listed and doing nothing.
Measurable results—Probably the most overlooked aspect of outreach projects is a way to gauge impact. What makes a program successful? It’s important to incorporate measurement tools into the project. In this case, it was the waste characterizations that assessed the success of our efforts. We measured our success by the percentage of properly recycled items pre- and post-pilot program.
Sustainability—The fact that the contamination rate remained at 20% seven months after the initial pilot program showed that the change in behavior was for the long term. The proper recycling behavior the campaign sought to bring about to San Bernardino residents was effective and long lasting.
Applicability—The pilot program was applied as a model to another part of the city with much success. It was implemented solely by the city staff, and contamination rates fell to 24% from 58%—a bigger percentage change than the pilot! The difference was that city staff paid in-person visits to the households to understand barriers and motivators, rather than holding a focus group. In any case, results showed that in-person visits were just as effective as the focus group. Everything else about the program, including mailing out postcards with one item to recycle or not recycle, was the same as the pilot. MSW
Namju Cho and Tiffany Jonick are client management specialists with S. Groner Assoc. at Long Beach, CA.