Sharon Oxley has recently joined GBB Solid Waste Management Consultants, Falls Church, Va., as director of public education services and marketing. Formerly, Oxley worked with the Glass Packaging Institute, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Keep America Beautiful.
WW: Has the importance of public education programs grown over the past five years? Why?
SO: It has. One reason is that municipal recycling programs keep changing and, as a result, public education efforts are needed to ensure participation.
I worked on a project for the U.S. Conference of Mayors in which I examined the survey results from about 255 member cities. They identified public education and participation - which I feel are closely linked - as two major barriers to increasing recycling rates.
WW: What challenges do public education planners face?
SO: You have to be careful that some public education campaigns aren't too successful. For example, this can happen with household hazardous waste collection programs. They can receive such a high response that they can't accept all the materials. That's why proper planning is essential to public education programs.
The most difficult public education challenge occurs when recycling programs change according to markets. For example, many communities are now adding mixed paper. Just trying to deal with the market dynamic and constantly changing the mix presents difficulties. Consumers get frustrated when they don't know which materials to set out. The more complicated it gets, the more difficult it is to get the message to the consumer. And the more frequently the message changes, the difficulty increases as well.
WW: What are the differences between implementing a public education program in a rural community versus an urban setting?
SO: They each require a different approach. You have to reach people in a different way. For example, you might target the county fair as a public education opportunity in a rural setting, whereas you'd focus on television or the newspaper in an urban setting.
Since drop-off programs are more prevalent in rural communities, they call for a different approach. For example, you may focus on educational tours for children at the local drop-off facility.
WW: Do you see public education programs becoming a permanent part of solid waste management planning?
SO: To some extent, they already are a permanent part. But when local budgets start shrinking, public education is usually the first thing to go. If you don't have public education, you're not going to be getting the valuable materials that provide revenue for your program. Since the value of recyclables has gone up, there's more interest in public education because communities can see the bottom-line effect. If you can increase your capture rate by 10 percent, and you're getting $100 per ton for paper, it's easier to persuade a city council or county commission that public education efforts really do pay for themselves.
WW: What is one creative example of a public education program that you've seen?
SO: One of the most interesting outreach programs I've seen was in Georgia. The town had a vehicle called the "Recycling Rover," which was a Winnebago transformed into a mobile educational unit. It went to fairs and traveled from school to school. Kids could go in it and learn about recycling through various activities.
WW: What are some effective public education strategies for cities with limited budgets?
SO: Communities can utilize cable television programming or ask local television stations to donate production time to put together an educational piece. A lot of air time is available to communities because cable stations have more free time than other stations do.