Curbing Recyclable Waste

WHEN COMMUNITIES ARE SHORT on landfill space, they often turn to recycling to preserve their valuable disposal capacity. However, merely operating a curbside recycling program does not guarantee success in reducing waste. So how can a city or county ensure waste is being diverted?

The Dallas suburb of Denton, Texas, conducted a curbside participation study to improve recycling. Armed with more knowledge about its citizens' recycling behavior, the city was able to more effectively target its program and reach out to specific populations.

Denton officials expect the city's population to more than double by 2020, and originally expected the landfill to last until 2049. However, new projections indicate the landfill will reach capacity in only 30 years.

With vacant landfill space in Denton rapidly declining, the city acknowledged it needed to step up efforts to divert trash by creating a recycling program. But before starting the program, Denton began a two-part curbside participation study in 1999.

The objectives of the study were to determine the composition of Denton's residential waste and the overall recyclable fraction. The study also would help the city link recycling participation and demographics.

After randomly sampling 254 garbage pickups, Denton learned that more than one-third of its waste came from residents. So in 2000 and 2002, Denton conducted two, one-week residential waste composition surveys of 400 randomly sampled addresses.

The studies indicated that more than 50 percent of residential waste being landfilled was recyclable. Thus, the composition surveys showed that diverting recyclable materials could save substantial landfill space.

In November 2002, Denton contracted with a private waste management company to implement a curbside recycling program. To gauge the effectiveness of this program, Denton began a six-week participation study in March 2003. The city selected 379 households from which it would measure recycling participation.

Each household was visited on its scheduled recycling day. Households were counted as program participants if the bin was at the curb and contained at least one recyclable item at least once within the six-week period.

The city also considered households' per capita income, education (percent of individuals with a bachelor's degree and percent enrolled in college or graduate school), and average household size. Property value and the occupants' owner or renter status were compiled for each household.

The study indicated 80 percent of observed households participated. Approximately 13 percent of the households recycled once during the six-week period, 15 percent participated twice, 10 percent participated three times, 8 percent participated four times, 14 percent participated five times, and 11 percent participated six times during the survey period.

The data collected showed a statistically significant link between recycling participation and income level. The higher a household's income, the more likely it was to recycle. The city also calculated partial correlations between the participation rate and households' per capita income and percent with a bachelor's degree.

Households with the lowest participation rates had the lowest property values. Participation increased for higher property value categories, but dropped off at the highest category. Participation was much lower (61 percent) for renters than for owners (78 percent).

Based on the studies' results, Denton determined its recycling campaign should target the entire community, with special attention given to areas with low participation. The city targeted those areas with door hangers and mailers, and also advertised in media aimed at those neighborhoods.

Denton has promoted its curbside recycling program through its Web page, ads in local media and on utility bills, and information packets for new renters and homeowners. In-school education campaigns are being planned for low participation neighborhoods.

These various forms of outreach describe the program, provide recycling rates and convey the overall importance of recycling.


Home Value No. of Times Recycled Participation Rate
$< 15,000 10 50 percent
15,001-75,000 82 62
75,001-125,000 154 75
125,001-175,000 85 74
175,001-225,000 19 100
225,001-275,000 14 93
> 275,000 15 67