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How to Educate Consumers About the Value of Recycling

How to Educate Consumers About the Value of Recycling

Discussing everything from single-stream contamination to the impacts of lightweighting to the psychology behind what drives people to toss materials in the recycling bin, the three headline speakers of the Waste360 Recycling Summit’s Educating Consumers session will tackle some weighty topics facing the industry and deliver some timely takeaways.

The lineup includes: Robert Anderson, regional business development manager for ReCommunity’s Philadelphia Metropolitan market; Alec Cooley, director, recycling programs for Keep America Beautiful; and Bill Keegan, president of Dem-Con Companies, a full-service recycling, processing and disposal company based in Shakopee, Minn.

We asked each to give us a sneak peek at what they plan to discuss during their 15-20 minutes at the microphone.

Waste360: Tell us some of the highlights of your talk.

Robert Anderson: First off, I’ll be explaining the paradigm shift that the recycling industry is experiencing right now and I will focus on two main aspects of that shift -- the changing stream which is impacting the efficiencies of the processing systems and the overall value of the incoming stream.

It now takes 11,000 more aluminum cans to make a ton of aluminum than it did five or six years ago. PET bottles are 30 percent lighter. Flexible packaging is becoming one of the fastest growing packaging material items in the country. So we are seeing some of the higher value materials being lightweighted out of the stream and that is impacting the overall value of the stream. We see the reduction of newsprint continuing to decline and that impacts the processing systems because the systems were designed to have a certain percentage of paper.

Waste360: How does education play into this?

Robert Anderson: I’m also going to talk about contamination and how contamination degrades the value of the overall ton of single stream but most importantly from a safety perspective, how contamination can be dangerous to the employees whether it’s large items that can cause injury, fire hazards materials, chemicals, batteries those types of things.

The municipalities that fail to continue to educate and advocate for what is truly recyclable will see their contamination rates continue to rise. People get more liberal in what they perceive as acceptable materials to recycle.

As an industry we have created our own problems. We message all plastics, well, not all plastics are recyclable curbside, namely film plastics.

We just need clarity, industry wide on what is recyclable because every processing facility is selling to the same market and selling the same commodities, with very slight variations.

Waste360: Bill, can we expect you to discuss the “C” word, too?

Bill Keegan: Yes, I’ll be discussing contamination and the need for consistent messaging from our industry. I’ll also be looking at regulatory policy and how that impacts recycling and more important how it impacts single-stream recycling.

A good portion of my talk will be looking at consumer education as it relates to the success of single stream because as we get more contamination in the single stream path that’s what causes problems in the regulatory environment.

We did something unique in our market area and we built a recycling and education conference center onto our recycling facility. In the year and half that it’s been in operation, we have had 1,500 people through that facility get educated about recycling and this something we provide at no cost. We have provided busing to schools to bring school aged kids. We have brought county commissioners, city council members, state regulatory agencies, national trade association and local trade associations.

Of those 1,500 people not one of them knew everything or all the answers of what should and shouldn’t go in the recycling bin. Every one of them was like “Wow, I never knew that before. This is really helpful.” The hope is that they go home and pass that message along. This grassroots or the bottom-up approach has been successful for us.

Waste360: What kind of regulatory policies will you discuss?

Bill Keegan: At a high level, I’ll focus on Minnesota policies. We’ve got some mandates that have been passed that require 75 percent recycling by 2030 and I’ll take about the positive and negative impacts of that mandate. And then more broadly about how those policies differ from national policy. As an industry, we face challenges because there isn’t just one set of rules that we’re all playing by. Every local market area or every state has different regulatory environments that pose challenges as to what rules must be abided by and what goals have to be reached.

Waste360: Keep America Beautiful is well known for its research-based participation and programming, so what are some of the key messages you’ll be offering to the audience?

Alec Cooley: My talk will focus primarily on behavior change and I’ll include tie in some of Keep America Beautiful programs that are aimed at raising awareness and doing education. I’m also going to focus on some of the underlying psychology of what we know about what actually motivates people to act to do environmental behavior and recycling.

Ten to 15 percent of the population gets environmental goals and have an inherent appreciation for those practices. Then there’s a huge percentage60 to 80 percent of peoplewho will do it only if it’s convenient and easy. So there’s that moveable middle where if you remove barriers, most people will do it, most of the time.

At the end of the day, we know a number of a behavior principles that can motivate people to recycle such as social norming and competitionall of our programs come back to those basic principles.

I’ll also touch on the best practices for public space recycling. In a park or streetscape, one the biggest problems is people either don’t participate or they participate wrong and put trash in the recycling bin or vice versa. We know that simply the design of the bin itselfits color, positioning, and type of opening—can encourage people to do the right thing.

Waste360: Sounds fascinating! Who is the ideal audience for this session?

Alec Cooley: Recycling coordinators, for sure, and any people doing recycling education and outreach in their communities. The session offers a combination of providing the knowledge to help them to hopefully be more sophisticated in how they do their outreach as well as letting them know about resources that we have available that they can use in their community.

There is also value to private recycling companies and haulers as far as better understanding of some of the fundamentals that drive recycling for whatever type of education they may be doing, too. 

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