While a majority of Americans are eager to recycle, research finds that many of them don’t know how to recycle properly. As municipalities set higher recycling goals and the value of recycled commodities stays flat, city leaders are focusing on public education campaigns to help residents conform to their programs.
The curbside recycling programs of the 1970s primarily focused on paper, because paper mills could turn recycled newspapers into newsprint. Over the years, recycling has become much more complex, as many more types of items have become eligible for curbside recycling. Cities initially introduced multiple bins for separating different types of recycling, and they later moved to “single-stream” programs that allowed residents to dump all recycling into a single, opaque bin for curbside pickup.
While single stream may have saved money for municipalities, it has made recycling errors easy. The bins are opaque, so recycling collectors don’t know if the bins contains trash mixed with recyclables. Nonrecyclable items and substances, as well as crushed glass, gummed up recycling equipment, which resulted in high contamination rates, poor quality control, and processors shipping out inferior recycled materials. Today, municipalities are becoming more selective about what recycling they will accept, and consumers are being asked to be more careful about what they throw in the recycling bin.
Successful recycling programs across the United States have community buy-in and an educational component. Once residents are on board with a program, they are much more likely to participate and recycle correctly. Education lies at the root of these successes, and social media and the Internet have provided many avenues for municipalities and other public organizations to communicate with customers about recycling.
Here are three ways education can boost recycling initiatives:
Making the message stick
Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a nonprofit organization, has discovered that creating a message that appeals to emotion and provides basic information about recycling can be extremely effective. Communities across the United States are implementing KAB’s marketing tools and messages in unique ways, such a buying space on the side of a bus to promote recycling.
One of KAB’s greatest successes is its website, iwanttoberecycled.org, which has games and tips about how, where, and what to recycle.
“What resonated most was that through their actions they could give [material] a new life,” said Brenda Pulley, KAB’s senior vice president of recycling, in an interview with Waste 360.
The website includes short videos in Spanish and English that show what happens to recycled items. One video features a plastic bottle that makes its way into a bench made of recycled materials. When people see that recycling can transform items, they begin to view recycling as a responsibility rather than a burden, according to Pulley.
Getting the community on board
Alcoa, Tennessee, recently celebrated 20 years of operating a successful curbside recycling program. Like many municipalities, it has moved from bins to single-stream recycling and has increased its diversion rate significantly. City officials estimate that almost 7,500 tons of waste have been diverted from the county landfill since the program’s inception. When combined with the amount of brush waste diverted from the landfill, about 42 percent of the city’s waste is now recycled, according to information from the city.
Approximately 65 percent of the city’s residents recycle, city leaders stated in a press release, which is far above the national average. One city leader said that solid waste officials were worried they would lose their jobs when they first began discussing implementing recycling decades ago. Instead, the community embraced the program, and it has exceeded city leaders’ expectations.
Using social media
In a new curbside recycling program in Seguin, Texas, participation reached 42 percent after one year—7 percent higher than the national average. To maintain the public’s interest in the program, the city has sponsored an online contest and recognized National Recycling Day with a citywide proclamation.
To participate in the city’s online contest, participants were asked to take a picture of themselves recycling (a “recycling selfie”) and post it on the city’s Facebook page. The mayor also made a proclamation announcing National Recycling Day and noted that the community had welcomed the opportunity to be more environmentally friendly.
A study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that using social media to promote recycling resulted in increased recycling rates on campus and better attitudes among students about recycling. Students received e-mails with links to recycling information on Facebook or YouTube and were asked to recycle and remind their friends to recycle.
Students were surveyed before and after their interaction with social media, and results showed that students recycled more and changed their viewpoints about recycling. Researchers concluded that reminding students to recycle was as important as providing convenient recycling bins.