Special Report: Recycling

Multifamily Recycling: Challenges and Strategies

Getting residents of multifamily units to recycle right comes with unique challenges.

Getting residents of multifamily units to recycle right comes with unique challenges. Unlike in the single-family home scenario, you can’t dangle carrots like monetary incentives for diverting. It’s not as easy to get in front of the tenant; the waste professional's customer is the property owner. And resident turnover is high, presenting more challenges. Even those who find ways around these barriers commonly face obstacles tied to infrastructure.

Three municipalities shared their multifamily recycling challenges with Waste360 and how they deal with them: San Francisco, Seattle and Montgomery County, Md.

San Francisco recently did some fast foot work to address a major trash pile up at a large public housing property.

Locks on several of the 16 trash/recycling drop off rooms were broken. People were dumping from outside the property and residents were stacking their disposables outside the door since their carts had been stolen.

“So we engaged the property management, tenants and custodial staff to work together,” says Paul Giusti regional government and community affairs manager for Recology San Francisco, who handles the city and county’s recycling.

Property managers took on the initial clean up, pressure washing, repairing light fixtures and rekeying to four master keys to curb dumping. 

Recology stepped in to keep the property on track, ensuring each room had black, green and blue bins and posters explaining what materials went in which one. They trained custodians and provided educational materials to residents.

“There has been significant improvement with more diversion from landfill happening. Tenants typically take the time to properly sort. But if they don’t, the custodians will move materials into the correct bins,” says Giusti.

Recology continues hammering the message, doing community outreach at parades, block parties and wherever else they can reach the masses, finding that face-to-face encounters with tenants is their most powerful tool.

But their Zero Waste team also trains building owners and managers in the field. And their website has a “Managers Corner” tab that offers more support.

Montgomery County, Md. is pushing for 70 percent diversion by 2020, but multifamily unit scores are not even close.

The municipality’s 125,000 multifamily households recycled 27 percent compared with 61 percent for all home types in calendar year 2014. The county is working with property owners, who are required to provide recycling service, to change this. A main focus is on infrastructure.

“At some properties there isn’t a single parking space to spare. You have to get creative to figure out how to accommodate the dumpster enclosures,” says Eileen Kao chief of waste reduction and recycling for Montgomery County. Her staff visits every property assessing layouts, physical constraints and waste volumes.

They focus on convenience, advising property owners to have a collection point on each floor. They suggest putting recycling bins wherever there are trash dumpsters. And the county provides each unit with a handled, six-gallon baby blue bin that residents tote to trash rooms and feed contents into chutes. 

There is the language barrier, as many residents speak no or little English. Montgomery County’s Recycling Made Easy brochures, produced just for multifamily households, are translated in 11 languages. Bilingual staff and volunteers also provide community outreach.

How Seattle reaches 145,914 multifamily households.

The city has changed course from back when it relied on landlords as the main way to relay the recycling message.

“Now we have mail lists with individual tenants’ addresses and send recycling information directly to them and our participation has since increased,” says Tim Croll Seattle’s solid waste planning director.

The city recently developed a new system to routinely send newcomers in both single-family and multifamily settings information packets. Croll anticipates this latest push will especially impact multifamily households as turnover is especially high there, so the rules need to be reiterated.

Despite the challenges, Seattle’s multifamily households are not far behind on the diversion front, landfilling 678 pounds a year versus single-family households’ 639 pounds, which is not typical.

“It may be Seattleites are more environmentally predisposed.  We have an ethic and interest.  But I don’t think that’s a huge factor because while we’ve heard horror stories in other parts of the country, many regions are successful,” says Croll.

What is working, he says, “Is educating at individual apartment buildings, grinding away at informing, then reiterating the message.”

Robert Mulligan, vice president of operations for the Closed Loop Fund, believes the ongoing education push is key in every region to get residents to buy in. But he cites other common denominators for success across properties and regions.

“You need a well-implemented plan. There should be ongoing tracking of participation. You need custodians’ support. And recycling should be convenient for residents,” Mulligan says.

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