Curbside Enthusiasm

Norcal introduces "cart hanger" recycling reminders.

In an effort to decrease the amount of recyclable and compostable material headed to its landfill, San Francisco hauler Norcal Waste Systems has taken a page from grassroots political campaigns and “point-of -sale” materials and come up with an industry first: door hanger-style recycling reminders, which the company attached to nearly 200,000 of its carts this summer.

Two “cart hanger” designs were created. The first is for the company's blue and green carts, used to collect recyclable and compostable materials respectively. Double-sided, the blue side of the hanger depicts a cereal box, a soda can, miscellaneous paper waste and other packaging above an arrow pointing to the inside of the blue cart. A second arrow shows what can be made from these recycled materials: aluminum cans, boxes and glass bottles. The hangers themselves are printed on recycled paper containing 100 percent post-consumer content.

The flip side of the hanger is green and shows a turkey bone, an apple core, an empty cardboard pizza box and other compostable material above arrows heading toward the green cart. Beneath that, a pair of cupped hands holds fresh compost. The usefulness of that compost is illustrated using tomatoes and grapes. The point is driven home with an illustration of a smiling planet Earth.

The second hanger was designed for Norcal's black garbage carts. On one side, the company shows what happens to recyclable and compostable materials deposited in the bin by including a shot of an open landfill. On the other side, the red international “no” circle symbol is stamped over junk mail and a banana peel, accompanied by text in English, Spanish and Mandarin urging residents not to trash food and paper but to recycle them instead. Here, a frowning Earth passes judgment on recycling laggards.

Working with design consultant Eileen Collins, Norcal came up with the cart hanger idea after a waste characterization study last year revealed that food scraps and other compostable material account for 35 percent of the garbage San Francisco sends to its landfills annually. Various types of paper and other recyclables, including bottles and cans, constitute 28 percent. Taken together, nearly 63 percent of San Francisco's landfill waste could be recycled or composted — quite a lot for a city that prides itself on being a leader in the “green” movement.

Norcal took this unique approach to reach their customers when they're most likely to be thinking about garbage: when they're pulling carts to and from the curb. “Giving people information about their garbage service at the precise time when they're already thinking about garbage represents a key opportunity in the quest to increase recycling,” says Norcal spokesman Robert Reed.

The approach is similar to “point-of-sale” advertising used at chain restaurants and other retail environments. A tent card asking, “Have you indulged in our fudge brownie ice cream pie?” can be a compelling pitch for hungry diners already seated at the table.

“In the garbage business, you succeed or fail at the curb,” Reed says. “A big part of that is the interaction between the customer and the garbage collector. You might liken the curb to the point-of-sale at a convenience store or market. In the best situation, the driver learns the customer's first name.” In lieu of that, “well-designed cart hangers become an effective point-of-sale communication.”

As to gauging their effectiveness in the long run, only time will tell. San Francisco's next waste characterization study will probably not be undertaken until 2016.
Paul Kilduff is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.