While we consistently hear that public education is a key factor in developing and maintaining successful recycling programs, it can seem like a daunting task to determine exactly what type of educational messages and approaches will achieve the best results for your particular community and your particular program.
This article aims to help solid waste professionals with this challenge by presenting a series of 10 steps for developing a recycling public education campaign. The content of this article was originally developed in 2006 by R. W. Beck for the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) with funding from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) as a workshop for its member local governments.
As the participants in that workshop discovered, the answer to the question “What works?” will be different for every community and organization. However, the following 10 steps are intended to help any organization answer this question by providing a structure and order for thinking about and developing the key building blocks of a successful public education campaign.
The steps are applicable whether you are starting a new recycling program or trying to reinvigorate an existing one. They also represent a recurrent process of goal setting, information gathering, development of educational messages and approaches, implementation, feedback and evaluation that can be used continually to help your program move incrementally toward attainment of its recycling goals.
Step 1: Decide Who Will Do the Work
It is critical to have at least one person who will assume primary responsibility for overseeing recycling education and outreach efforts. Depending on the size and scope of the organization and recycling program, this person may be a full-time recycling coordinator or another local staff member or official such as a solid waste manager, planner, or public works director. Ideally, the selected person should be able to communicate effectively with customers and the media alike. This person will be the public face of the program and will have primary responsibility for guiding educational program development and implementation.
Aside from this point person, many organizations find it very helpful to develop a volunteer recycling committee. These committees generally consist of citizens who have a strong interest in recycling and enjoy being involved in community service activities. This type of committee can perform a variety of valuable functions including:
- Providing opinions and ideas that are representative of the community and your customers
- Donating skills, time and resources
- Providing links with citizen, business and civic groups
- Ensuring sufficient, ongoing support for educational efforts
In addition to in-house staff and volunteers, any organization that has a public-private partnership for the collection and/or processing or recyclables, should also view and utilize the private partner as a resource with whom responsibilities for public education can be shared. Private partners can often provide valuable expertise, avenues for distribution of educational materials, and financial assistance among many other potentially helpful contributions.
Step 2: Establish Clear Goals
When beginning the process of developing a public education campaign, it is important to clearly define exactly what needs to be accomplished. Recycling programs can have very different needs at different points in time.
Thinking about your program’s specific needs up front will save time and energy throughout the process of developing the educational message and means. Ask yourself: “What do we want to accomplish?” Some common goals of recycling public education efforts are to:
- Initiate a new recycling program
- Expand an existing program
- Provide customers with the knowledge to participate correctly
- Increase diversion
- Decrease contamination
- Increase participation
- Reinvigorate a program
- Reach new residents
Decide what goal or goals best fit your program and its current needs and keep those specific goals in mind as you move through the process of developing the messages and methods to be utilized as part of your educational campaign.
Also, keep in mind that a recycling program’s goals will evolve over time as the program grows and develops. The goal is to maintain consistency in communication over the long-term, while tweaking the educational approaches as necessary to address changing needs.
Step 3: Target Your Audience
In order to develop an educational approach that will be effective for your program, it is imperative to understand precisely who your customers or target audience(s) really are. Audiences can be determined by a variety of factors such as any one or a combination of the following:
- Place of residence
- Type of residence
- Membership in organizations
- Place of employment
There are a number of potential customer groups that are commonly identified as target audience for recycling education and outreach. They include but are not limited to:
- Apartment dwellers
- Civic groups
- Senior citizens
- General public
The nature and type of promotional materials and messages you will want to develop will depend heavily on whom you are trying to reach. Think carefully about the specific audience that you need to educate and specifically target those groups that are critical to your program’s success.
Step 4: Get to Know Your Target Audience
Once you have identified your target audience, it is important to develop an understanding of that audience’s range of beliefs and awareness related to recycling. The customer or target audience is perhaps the most overlooked resource in developing public education campaigns and programs. As your target audience, they know better than anyone what will catch their eye or compel them to participate. They can also identify their most common questions or concerns regarding recycling, and provide a customer’s perspective of the functional strengths and weaknesses of an existing program.
Asking some key questions, such as the following, can help you understand the mindset of your target audience:
- Do they support the idea of a recycling program, and why or why not?
- What do they see as the most important features of a program?
- Are they aware of the tangible benefits of recycling?
- What do they find difficult or confusing about recycling?
- What types of messages are effective or ineffective in motivating them to recycle?
The same message will not resonate with every audience. Cultural, political, social, geographic and individual factors will influence the answers to all of these questions. It is important to understand your specific audience, their mindset, and their potential trigger points as well as possible.
This information can be gathered through a variety of means including focus groups, workshops, and surveys. Utilize existing customer contact points and make use of existing organizations within your community to help you gather the necessary input. This is also an excellent opportunity to make use of a volunteer recycling committee if you have one. Just be sure to keep the focus on your target audience and involve people that may have a variety of different viewpoints and experiences regarding recycling from within that target audience. Make an effort to talk with customers that are both welcoming of your program, as well as those who may be indifferent or even adverse to it. If the goal is to compel as many of your customers to participate as possible, it will be of key importance to understand the perspectives of everyone, including those who are a tougher sell.
Not only are your customers a valuable resource for gaining an understanding of current perceptions and issues, but customers are more likely to support and participate in a recycling program if they feel they have had input into its development.
Step 5: Develop Your Message
Based on completion of the previous steps, you should be prepared to begin developing an educational message. The contents of any message should be based on your organization’s specific programs and goals and should directly reflect the needs and values of the community you serve.
It is important to step back and put yourself in the mindset of your target audience at this point. Think specifically about the things you would want to know if you were a novice recycler, and communicate those things in a clear, concise and consistent way using terminology that is common and understandable to your target audience.
Some key questions that should always be addressed in your educational messaging are:
Why should I recycle?—Focus on the specific environmental, economic and/or social benefits that best reflect the values and concerns of your target audience.
How do I recycle?—Include all relevant details of the program you are promoting. Remember to include information that states who, what, when, where, and how your target audience can recycle.
Above all, remember to keep the message clear, concise, and consistent. Avoid giving your target audience any excuses for discarding or dismissing your message. You can do this by:
- Providing all the key facts in as succinct a manner as possible
- Avoiding uncommon terms or acronyms
- Keeping information and terminology consistent
- Providing an easy method of obtaining more information if needed
Step 6: Benchmarking
Once you have developed the fundamental pieces of your message, it can be very helpful to research the educational messages and approaches that other communities and organizations have used successfully.
Use the Internet, industry publications, and professional contacts to help you identify successful recycling programs. Talk to professionals in other communities and organizations about their public education and outreach efforts and borrow ideas from successful programs.
Just make sure that any ideas you borrow will fit well with your organization’s particular goals and target audience. There are many good, proven ideas out there, but not all of them will be applicable to or effective in every situation.
Step 7: Select an Educational Approach
Based on your program goals, target audience and ideas gathered through the benchmarking process, you can begin to select an educational approach or a suite of educational approaches that will complement and reinforce one another. Based on all your efforts and research to this point, select the types of activities and information sources that you believe will most effectively reach your target audience.
For example, if your goal is to reinvigorate an existing curbside recycling program in which your target audience is owners or occupants of single-family homes in your community, you might select the following combination of educational approaches:
- Web site
- Quarterly or biannual newsletter
- Presentations to homeowners associations and school groups
- Periodic news articles in the local paper
- Annual special event that gets the community involved and thinking about recycling
You can then incorporate the message developed in Step 5 into each of the selected educational approaches. No matter the type or combination of educational approaches you select for implementation, the overall goals are to:
- Capture the attention of your target audience
- Deliver an effective message in the target audience’s language
- Motivate your target audience to take action
Step 8: Define Success for Your Program
As you begin implementation of a selected educational approach, it is important to establish measurable goals for your activities. These goals should be objective markers or milestones that will allow you to track progress and evaluate the effectiveness of a particular educational approach. Ideally, each goal should contain the following components:
- Activity to be completed
- Person(s) who will complete the activity
- Schedule or targeted completion date
- Quantifiable benchmarks to measure impact and progress toward overall program goals
If you are working within an existing program, make use of any available data regarding your program’s current performance (tonnage, participation rates, set-out rates, number of Web site hits, number of recycling bins requested, etc.) to establish and document an appropriate baseline measure of performance prior to implementation of any new educational efforts. This will allow you to more easily quantify the success of any new educational outreach efforts over time.
Success will be defined somewhat differently by every program and organization, but it should be characterized in a way that is helpful and realistic for a particular program given its current status. Just as your program’s goals will evolve over time, so will your program’s definition of success. Both will need to be re-evaluated on a regular basis.
Step 9: Develop a Feedback Loop
Feedback is a critical component of any recycling public education campaign. It should flow freely back and forth between your organization and your target audience. On one side of the feedback loop, providing feedback to your customers provides a unique opportunity to reinforce their positive behavior and provide information that may help to correct any negative or undesirable behavior. Your organization should use any number of its selected educational approaches to frequently highlight things like:
- Amount of materials recovered
- Money saved
- Positive impacts and successes of the program
The goal in providing feedback to customers is to make them feel appreciated for their recycling efforts. People universally like to hear when they have done a good job at something, and consistent feedback will help your organization reinforce your target audience’s commitment to recycling and encourage them to do more.
On the other side of the feedback loop, your target audience needs to be provided with ample opportunities to supply feedback to your organization regarding any recycling programs. It is imperative that your customers be able to easily:
- Ask questions and receive timely answers
- Make recommendations
- Register complaints
- Request information, materials or assistance
Pay close attention to questions and complaints that are received and document them. Frequently recurring themes can provide valuable feedback for your program and are good indicators of areas in which operational or educational improvements may be most needed.
Step 10: Evaluate Your Program
The last step, evaluation, is often overlooked, but has the potential to provide your organization with some of the most valuable information regarding the effectiveness of your education and outreach efforts.
Periodic reviews of both qualitative and quantitative data such as surveys, tonnage reports, contamination levels, participation rates, set-out rates, and citizen questions and complaints, can help you evaluate, update and improve communication with your target audience. The type of data that is relevant for your program will be dependent on the specific characteristics of each program and will vary significantly. However, every program can develop a list of items that serve as good indicators of success.
When periodically reviewing the data collected, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the message being received?
- Are we moving toward our program goals?
- Are our customers confused?
- Do our customers need more or different information?
- Does the approach being used warrant the time and/or money being spent?
The answers to these questions will provide valuable insight and may lead your program back to the start to revisit some or all of the 10 steps listed above. This is exactly what you want to happen. Recycling education and outreach is a continual process that must constantly evolve to meet the ever-changing needs, challenges and goals of our organizations and communities.