Cultivating a successful recycling program, whether among municipal employees or the general public, calls for a holistic view of sustainability, according to one expert.
“When most people think of sustainability, they usually think of only the environmental benefits for the planet, but it means much more,” said Amy Snyder, stormwater program coordinator with the city of Oak Ridge, Tenn. “Sustainability’s root word is to sustain, whether that be in terms of an organization, a growing economy or a culture.”
To that end, the COR Values: Recycling program represents what can happen when what Snyder refers to as a “balance between environmental protection and resourcefulness on a local government level” ensues.
“Every year, two AmeriCorps members serve with the city of Oak Ridge Stormwater Management Program,” Snyder said. “As stormwater technicians, they wear many hats, but one of their main responsibilities is to provide water quality outreach and education to the community of Oak Ridge.”
In 2015, a pilot recycling program was launched at the Central Services Complex, which is the central hub for many city service divisions and totals approximately 150 people who use the building daily. Upon arrival in August 2015, the AmeriCorps team immediately noticed a need for a building-wide recycling program, and by December, they launched a pilot program called COR Values: Recycling. The Central Services Complex’s COR Values program recycles an average of 100 pounds each month, which is keeping approximately 1,200 pounds of material out of the landfill each year, according to data provided by Snyder.
The program, which is still in effect today, aims to help Oak Ridge’s government buildings become more sustainable by making recycling easier, providing recycling education and increasing overall recycling levels, Snyder stated.
That education piece has been particularly critical, in part because of the execution.
“We trained all employees on the dos and don’ts of recycling and what makes this effort so important,” said Snyder. “We paired the educational sessions as prequels to the required monthly safety meetings so no one had to spend additional time attending separate meetings.”
She said the program was well received overall, especially since they provided incentives. And one of their main goals was to make it easy for employees to incorporate recycling into their everyday lives. Those who were already recycling were the first to jump on board, she added.
Regarding program evaluation and incentives, Snyder said it wasn’t sophisticated, but it was effective.
“We did this by performing trash audits, which simply meant that we would get down and dirty in the bins to see what people where throwing away and what they were recycling,” she said. “It is definitely not a glamorous process. During the first year of the program, we performed these audits monthly and measured success in terms of percentages of pounds of material incorrectly recycled or thrown away.”
In terms of incentives, Snyder said they wanted to keep things fun and lighthearted, to foster camaraderie. At the time of launch, the audits showed that roughly 40 percent of the materials in the trash bins could have been recycled. Each time the employees reduced the amount of recyclable materials in the trash by 10 percent, they earned a reward.
“In order for the employees to stay updated with their progress, the AmeriCorps members created Recycling Progress charts that were posted near the buildings’ time clocks with the reward system displayed,” she said. “The system was well received, and we often observed employees in the break room teaching other employees what to recycle so they can reach their goals.”
Over the course of a few months, the employees earned a donut breakfast, free sandwich coupons at a local restaurant and a pizza party celebration when everyone reached the 10 percent mark. What made these incentives doubly effective was the fact that they were also donated to the city at no cost. Other intangible benefits included improved employee culture, she added.
Snyder said the program has evolved over the years, but the commitment is still there. The future of this program now lies in the hands of the trained employees. They still conduct audits, but they are less frequent.
In her words, “We found that we don’t need to monitor as much because we continue to see improvement. The last audit revealed that only 5.8 percent of material in the recycling bins was not recyclable. We also no longer have an active incentive program, but we do celebrate America Recycles Day every year with a friendly employee recycling competition.”
In reflecting on the program’s success, Snyder said being open to risk helped their cause. Her advice for other municipalities looking to initiate a similar model comes down to seeing what sticks.
“You will make mistakes and figure it out as you go, but you have to start somewhere,” she said. “We started by reaching out to other entities that already had successful recycling programs and building our foundation based on what we thought could work for us. Based on our results, it is a clear success story of how local government employees can help pave the road to a more sustainable future environmentally, socially and culturally.”
Encouraging recycling in public spaces
Alec Cooley, former director of recycling programs at Keep America Beautiful, offered tips for public park managers in his July 2016 column in Parks & Recreation magazine. He said inaction on the part of the public is related at least in part to perceived barriers.
“While the 15-20 percent of people shown to have strong environmental beliefs will go out of their way to recycle an item correctly,” he writes, “multiple studies have demonstrated the key to getting most people to recycle is to remove the two greatest barriers that prevent them from doing so: confusion about what to recycle and lack of convenience.”
It also goes back to having systems in place to accommodate recycling. Cooley cites research conducted by Keep America Beautiful in 2009 that showed “only 12 percent of surveyed public locations had infrastructure to recover recyclable items. This lack of recycling opportunities is reflected in a separate national survey KAB conducted in 2013, in which 92 percent of respondents said they recycle at home while only 19 percent indicated that they typically recycle in public parks.”
The antidote to this, according to Cooley, is paying attention to design and psychological factors that might influence participation. For example, using different colors to distinguish recycling from trash can help with compliance. Clear and simple messaging is another effective safeguard. For example, he noted the National Mall labeled its recycling bins with a few bold words: “RECYCLE” and “BOTTLES and CANS,” along with a recycling symbol and images of cans and plastic bottles. Consistency across facilities can help people associate the bins with recycling.
“While there is no national standard for coloring, wording or listing of acceptable items collected for recycling, facility managers can minimize confusion by harmonizing these factors within a facility or park and with other recycling programs in the surrounding community,” he said.