Taking out the trash is a learned behavior. Until the late 1800s, most Americans simply threw their garbage out of a window onto the back yard or the street. Pigs and other animals ate the food waste. The rest of the trash was ground into the mud and dirt or blew away.
We only learned to take out the trash after we realized that garbage could spread disease. To make garbage collection work effectively, people had to learn new habits. Instead of throwing their trash out the window, they had to learn to keep it in trashcans and then put those containers on the curbside on garbage day. Cities spent a good deal of time and effort training their residents in this new behavior. Yet their efforts paid off as weekly trash collection went from new to normal.
Getting people to recycle is no different. It is simply a new learned behavior. Instead of putting all of our trash in a garbage can, we had to learn to put garbage in one container and recyclables in another. As programs expanded, whether they added yard waste or more recyclables, we had to be retrained. America’s constantly rising recycling rate is proof that we are capable of changing our behavior.
Or at least those of us who live in single-family housing have learned this new behavior. Recycling rates in apartment buildings continue to lag. We haven’t yet learned how to change behavior in those locations.
In part, this is due to cramped spaces and the lack of recycling receptacles in apartments. That problem can be solved through “opportunity to recycle” laws such as are found in the states of California and Maryland. These laws require that all tenants be given recycling bins and that larger central bins be available to ease collection of those recyclables by waste handlers. Tenants in those two states can no longer use convenience or accessibility as excuses not to recycle.
However, a bigger problem remains. This is the anonymous nature of apartment buildings. In a neighborhood of single-family homes, everyone sees who puts their garbage and recyclables on the curb on collection day. In an apartment building, trash and recyclables go to central collection points whenever each generator feels like taking them there. Social pressure to recycle is alive and well in single-family neighborhoods and nonexistent in multifamily buildings.
If we are going to increase recycling, we need to find ways to change behavior in apartment buildings and condos. Recently I read a collection of eight case studies highlighting techniques to increase recycling in these buildings. “Multifamily Recycling,” by Cascadia Consulting of Seattle, does an excellent job of explaining how local governments, haulers and building managers have worked together to raise recycling rates in this challenging environment.
Successful techniques include enhanced publicity, recycling “champions,” and a recycling rewards program. Yet the biggest increase occurred in San Jose, Calif., where a mixed waste processing facility (a.k.a. “dirty MRF”) is used to separate organics and recyclables from mixed waste generated at apartment buildings (California’s deposit law already recycles most of the bottles and cans). That option has been most successful for organics recovery. Much of the paper, however, is too wet to be recycled but can still be composted.
This study provides invaluable insights into how to increase recycling in multifamily housing. Cascadia’s analysis should help to continue recycling’s upward climb.