Transparent Trucks

Norcal launches an innovative campaign to make residents think about waste.

For most people, garbage is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind proposition. While many may realize that much of what they toss in the garbage should actually be redirected to a recycling or composting cart, as long as that material goes away, there's no further need to worry about it.

In an effort to stem this tide of blissful ignorance, San Francisco-based Norcal Waste recently unveiled 3-D imagery on the sides of 20 trucks depicting exactly what most of them contain — pizza boxes, milk cartons, banana peels, cardboard take-out containers, watermelon rinds — items that should be recycled or composted. Superimposed over this cross-section of trash is the outline of a recycling cart encompassing a photo of a lush vineyard, an ocean scene or a redwood grove. The message is clear: by recycling or composting the materials shown in the truck, people can help protect the environment.

The idea behind the campaign is to get consumers to take a second look at their garbage and realize that it isn't waste at all, says Norcal spokesman Robert Reed. "When people look at their garbage, they should see paper, metal, plastic containers and food scraps — things that should be recycled or composted," he says.

Using their trucks as part of an educational campaign is nothing new for the company. In 2006, Norcal turned the sides of their junk collection trucks into catchy billboards. One showed an old washing machine with the tagline "Wants to Come Back as a Hybrid." Another showed an old television with the tagline "The Smithsonian Already Has One."

The current campaign furthers Norcal's goal — mandated by the city — that it divert 75 percent of its waste by 2010 and have a zero waste by 2020. Currently, San Francisco has a 70 percent diversion rate — the highest rate of any city in the country.

To ramp up its recycling and composting outreach efforts, Norcal directed its public relations agency to contact San Francisco-based Brainchild Creative, which created what Norcal considers to be the state's most effective education campaign, "Flex Your Power." The campaign's effort to get people to turn off unused lights and other electrical devices, has saved more than 3 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, worth more than $500 million.

To focus on recycling and composting, Reed brought the campaign's creative team down to Norcal's San Francisco recycling and transfer center for an unvarnished look at what the company likes to call "the pit."

"We told them, 'We can show you some fancy recycling lines, but we're not going to do that. We're going right to the pit'," Reed says. "We showed them the 'garbage, garbage' — the stuff that does not get recycled but instead goes to the landfill. The pit is an otherworldly place. It smells. It's dirty."

"The pit is our challenge. We are charged with recycling more of San Francisco's trash," says Reed, referring to the city's three-cart program that sends recyclables to a blue cart, compost to a green cart and anything else to a black cart.

"We simply must inspire people to put things that can be recycled in the blue cart and things that can be composted in the green cart," he says. "Take a look in the pit, and you will see people need to be more attentive. People who tour with us look and quickly decide they do not want to contribute to filling landfills any more. They go home and are more attentive to recycling."

More attuned to the challenges facing San Francisco's recycling industry, the campaign's designers hit upon the idea of creating an almost "see through" garbage truck. The team designed three 3-D photo decals of actual San Francisco trash (no food stylists were used in the campaign). Custom cut to fit around all the nooks and crannies of the typical garbage truck, the decals are applied via an adhesive backing. Each decal costs nearly $2,500. While Norcal expects the decals to last five years in San Francisco, the expected life span in southern California and other areas with more sun is closer to three years.

Norcal's campaign, dubbed "Recycling Changes Everything," has been so well received that other cities, such as Glendale, Ariz., have expressed an interest in licensing the materials used in the concept. Despite this, the campaign was initially a hard sell in San Francisco. "Some people who knew about the campaign were concerned that showing pictures of garbage, particularly food scraps, would trigger the 'ick' factor — the fear that some people have that food scraps set aside for compost collection will smell," Reed says, adding, "handled properly, they do not."

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the campaign is the non-traditional way it's delivered — on actual garbage trucks. Reed likens the approach to Norcal's "artists in residence" program where artists get to pick through trash to create art. "'Recycling Changes Everything' is like the garbage art program — a unique way to encourage people to think about garbage and recycling," Reed says. "You don't expect to see the garbage inside a garbage truck. You look at art, enjoy it, then realize it was made from trash, then consider what the artist is saying about trash, recycling and taking steps to help protect the environment. Then think about your own trash and that you should take steps to reduce waste and recycle more."

Paul Kilduff is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.