Waste Management’s (WM) Recycle Corps program is an intensive 11-week, hands-on job training internship that teaches college students the latest strategies in effectively engaging the public and businesses in waste reduction and recycling behavior change. The program is designed to provide students authentic experiences in the field as recycling educators. Individuals work in teams, directly with business owners and staff, property managers, and residents, and one-on-one with the public to provide recycling and waste reduction education. This program has been an incubator for the recycling industry, with 17 of the 36 Recycle Corps team alumni now working as professionals in the industry for private companies, the public sector, and consulting firms. Over the course of three years, the Recycle Corps team has conducted more than 48,000 customer conversations, which has resulted in an increase in recycling tons by 3,532.
Statement of Intent
WM’s Recycle Corps program was launched in 2012, providing education to two audiences:
- College Students: Interns who receive hands-on job training and learn to implement the latest strategies in effectively engaging the public and businesses in waste reduction and recycling behavior change.
- Recycling Program Participants: The interns work with businesses, multifamily properties, and the public in 26 cities, across three counties, to implement behavior change that improves recycling habits and reduces waste.
Going into year four, the Recycle Corps program has a total of 36 alumni, 17 of which are now working as professionals in the recycling and waste prevention industry for private companies, the public sector, and consulting firms. In three years, the Recycle Corps team has had 48,000 customer conversations, which resulted in improved recycling rates. The achieved results and impact on customers inspires this submission for the Recycle Corps program for SWANA’s Educational Program Excellence Award.
Research and Planning
Despite 30+ years of curbside recycling in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, annual improvements in the recycling rate had been slowing, and in some cities, the recycling rate had plateaued. Through waste characterization studies, King County and the City of Seattle consistently found opportunities for diversion in the garbage thrown away by residents and businesses. Consistently, the garbage contained 30% compostable materials and 20% recyclable paper.
Additionally, there is a need to recruit passionate recycling and solid waste educators, as many seasoned professionals are within 10–15 years of retirement. There is an opportunity for training and developing a solid youth population to recruit professionals from.
To meet both needs—improve the recycling rate in the Puget Sound region and train the next generation of passionate recycling educators, Waste Management created the Recycle Corps program using the standards and methodologies of Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM).
The Recycle Corps program was developed to maximize the number of people who could be reached within an annual cycle by inspiring, motivating, and empowering individuals to maximize their engagement in existing recycling, composting, and waste prevention programs. The Recycle Corps program was developed as a multi-faceted opportunity for not only residents and businesses, but also environmental science students to get comprehensive training opportunities and hands-on job experience in the field of recycling outreach. The Recycle Corps team works with 26 cities in the Puget Sound region, each with its own waste prevention plan and goals to achieve, yet working with limited resources available to reach all residents.
The Recycle Corps program meets customers where they are, at community events, businesses, and multifamily residential properties, to provide one-on-one engagement to educate residents and businesses on proper recycling and to change behaviors to improve recycling habits. One-on-one engagement is the core principal of CBSM, found to be the most effective way to engage people, create awareness, and change behaviors.
The Recycle Corps program also serves as an incubator for finding and developing future leaders within the solid waste industry. Most of the Recycle Corps team alumni are now working in the industry.
The Recycle Corps program was developed to reach two target audiences, college students nationwide who are passionate about sustainability and the environment, and recycling program participants (single-family residents, multifamily residents and property managers, and businesses) in the Puget Sound area.
In the second year of the program (2013), WM added a third target audience for the program: the WM public education outreach team. These internal recycling educators were given professional development opportunities as intern leads to gain experience in supervising and leadership.
Program Goals, Objectives, and Tactics
The goals and objectives of the Recycle Corps program were designed to be specific, measurable, attainable, and relevant within the 11-week internship timeframe. The Recycle Corps program runs from the second week of June through the last week of August each year. The following are the goals for the Recycle Corps program:
- Hire 10–12 interns yearly to be part of the Recycle Corps.
- Provide hands-on job training that will prepare interns to enter the recycling industry as education and outreach professionals.
- Execute 10–15 city-wide recycling education campaigns.
- Staff between 90–100 event days with the WM Recycling Information Station.
- Connect one-on-one with individuals to remove barriers for participating in recycling and composting programs.
- Provide educational materials on proper recycling methods.
- Increase the recycling rate and tons of materials recycled in the Puget Sound area.
- Reduce the amount of recyclables and compost landfilled.
In order to accomplish these goals, WM developed a week-long intensive training session, created training materials from scratch, developed partnerships with recycling industry experts to participate in the training session, coordinated a ride-along with drivers and tours of recycling and compost facilities, and hired qualified applicants.
Over the course of the program, WM has worked with two internal recruiters to conduct a highly competitive professional application process. Between 2012 and 2015, 829 applicants have applied from top universities across the country. To date, Recycle Corps has included students attending Cascadia Community College, Chapman University, Claremont McKenna College, Colorado University, Eastern Washington University, Georgetown University, Grays Harbor College, Northwest University, Santa Clara University, Seattle University, Stanford University, University of California Berkeley, University of California Los Angeles, University of Pacific, University of Washington, University of Washington Bothell, and Western Washington University.
Opportunities for Meeting the Goals
The Recycle Corps program has a great opportunity for growth in the number of residents who can be reached. In 2014, within a 10-week timeframe, the Recycle Corps team reached 19,000 residents through interactions with individuals (adults and children) at community events, business visits, and multifamily visits with property managers and residents.
As mentioned in the obstacles above, there is an increased focus on reaching multicultural and English-language learner populations effectively. Adding multicultural outreach elements offer an opportunity to grow the program’s reach in terms of the number of people reached and the cultures that are engaged in recycling and composting behaviors.
Implementation and Execution
Program Activities Used to Achieve Goals
The top level goals of the Recycle Corps program are: 1) to provide interns with hands-on job training to become recycling educators, and 2) engage the public in proper recycling methods and change behaviors to increase recycle rates. As such, the activities involved in the program align with that.
The Recycle Corps team goes through an intense one-week training period where they learn about the foundation of what is recyclable and compostable in each city and county in the Puget Sound region. Their training week also includes interactive workshops on public speaking, how to conduct multifamily outreach, how to conduct business outreach, how to develop strong messages, CBSM basics, and effective and engaging outreach strategies. Each workshop offered during the training week includes roleplay, and the interns have the opportunity to hear about programs happening at the regional level including product stewardship, waste prevention programs, like the One Less Bag Challenge in King County. Participants also ride along with a WM driver and take tours of local recycling and compost facilities. At the end of the week, the group is trained and ready to conduct public outreach as official recycling ambassadors.
Partnerships are a key element to the success of the Recycle Corps program. Partners participate in the intensive training session during week one, training students with their expertise in different fields of public engagement. This is vital to effectively preparing the Recycle Corps team members to effectively execute public outreach campaigns in the following 10 weeks of the internship, and gain the experience needed to become successful professionals in the field following graduation.
Recycle Corps Program Partners:
- Environmental Coalition of South Seattle
- King County
- Snohomish County
- Cascadia Consulting
- C+C | PR & Social Marketing
- TD Wang
- Cities in King, Skagit, and Snohomish Counties (26 in total)
- WM Operations Team (Route Managers, District Managers, Drivers)
- Washington State Recycling Association
A Unique Approach and Program Achievements
As a direct result of the Recycle Corps program, WM and the 26 cities working with the Recycle Corps teams have seen remarkable results. In just seven cities that worked with Recycle Corps teams over the past three years, WM has documented an increase in recycling tons by 3,532, which translates to more than 7 million pounds of recyclables diverted from the landfill.
This program is unique in that it has achieved a large improvement in recycling among Puget Sound area residents; but also, over the past three years, there has been an increase in recycling knowledge among residents, businesses, and multifamily property managers and residents, who year-over-year, have less questions and are less confused about how maximize their participation in local recycling, composting, and waste prevention programs.
Equally unique and important is that of the 36 students who have participated in the Recycle Corps program: 17 of them are currently working as professionals in the recycling and waste prevention industry for private companies, the public sector, and consulting firms.
Results and Evaluation
Target Audience Response
The Recycle Corps program continues to receive positive responses from both interns who were part of the Recycle Corps teams, the cities who have worked with the Recycle Corps teams, and the residents who have engaged with the Recycle Corps teams, many of whom have shared “Thank you, I always wondered about that!” feedback. In an effort to ensure the program is valuable to the students, WM debriefs and conducts a survey with each student in the middle of the program, and following the completion of the program.
Since the beginning of the Recycle Corps program, setting measurable goals that demonstrate impact has been a high priority. Over the program’s three years, goals and results are as follows:
Goal: Conduct 10–15 outreach campaigns
Result: The Recycle Corps team executed 15 campaigns in 2012, 13 campaigns in 2013, and 10 campaigns in 2014.
Goal: Staff 90–100 event days at local farmers market, community fairs, and events
Result: The Recycle Corps team, staffed 91 event days in 2012, 95 event days in 2013, and 96 event days in 2014.
Goal: Increase the amount of recyclable materials diverted from the landfill.
Result: In the seven cities that worked with the Recycle Corps team each year for three years, WM has documented an increase in recycling tons by 3,532 which converts to more than seven million pounds of recyclables diverted from the landfill.
Goal: Increase the number of residents reached through one-on-one engagement
Result: The Recycle Corps team reached 15,000 people in 2012, 14,000 people in 2013, and 19,000 people in 2014. Additionally, in 2014, Recycle Corps expanded outreach opportunities for the Spanish-speaking population in the Puget Sound region by creating a customized Spanish-language version of the signature Recycling Information Station for Fiestas Patrias, one of the prominent events for the Latino community. In three hours, the Recycle Corps team engaged more than 250 event attendees in one-on-one conversations about recycling.
Goal: Create an incubator for finding and developing future leaders within the solid waste industry
Result: Of the 36 Recycle Corps alumni, 17 are currently working in the recycling and waste prevention field for private companies, the public sector, or consulting firms.
The achievements of the Recycle Corps program over the past three years have been inspiring, motivating future possibilities and opportunities for the program. The 2015 program will incorporate multicultural and multilingual communities, as WM is actively recruiting bilingual students to join the 2015 Recycle Corps team. In 2014 WM opened up its weeklong intensive training session for the Recycle Corps to local organizations who wanted to gain training in recycling outreach. Twenty staff from partner organizations participated, including multicultural outreach experts, from ECOSS, TD Wang, and C+C.