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How to Get People to Recycle Right

The most effective communication is succinct and simple, such as flyers with images grouped by material categories, with brief, user-friendly instructions.

People want to recycle, but a diversion program’s success depends on residents’ and workers’ understanding of how to recycle correctly. As a result, the industry is ever wrestling with how to design strategic communication initiatives, with both the solid waste industry and product and packaging manufacturers joining the effort.

They have learned that simple messaging is better; choosing a universal language that resonates is critical; and consumers need assurance that what they put to the curb actually gets recycled.

A web-based survey conducted by Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) on behalf of the Food Service Packaging Institute (FPI), a trade organization, found that most consumers rely on local government or recycling companies’ websites for recycling information. Younger audiences gravitate toward social media for information.

But most consumers turn to the package first for specific instructions.

And the most effective communication is succinct and simple, such as flyers with images grouped by material categories, with brief, user-friendly instructions.

More than half of RRS’ survey respondents said they tried to determine if they should recycle by looking for a symbol on the package, while about 25 percent said they would check with their city, county or recycling company.

To craft a clear and effective message, it’s important to consider how residents think versus how manufacturers or recyclers may think, says Lynn Dyer, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute (FPI). Dyer is among speakers who will present Tuesday, May 9, 12:30 PM at a session named 5 Things You Need to Know About Recycling Education at WasteExpo in New Orleans.

“We showed a picture [of a container during the survey] and asked, what would you call this? For us in the industry it’s a clam shell,” Dyer says. “But the term foam or plastic container resonates more than clam shell with residents. So it’s important when communicating with residents to know what to call it and to avoid industry terminology.”

The FPI has focused on getting municipalities to add food service packaging to their residential recycling programs, which has also required special consideration of consumers’ understanding.

“You must know the best way to make clear what you are adding and how to deal with it,” says Dyer.

As new items are added to the stream, FPI has encouraged communities to rely on their websites as communication vehicles and has helped in the effort. The trade association created a database of images of food services packaging and will provide cities and counties images to post.

In its research to learn of consumers’ attitudes and behaviors, national nonprofit Keep America Beautiful (KAB) made several discoveries: “It’s important to make recycling as convenient as possible. Communication should be simple and digestible, with an emotional connection. And communication must be consistent,” says Brenda Pulley, KAB senior vice president of recycling. Pulley will also present at the WasteExpo session on recycling education.

People are concerned about waste, especially landfill and ocean waste, KAB has learned through its research.

But while they want to recycle, 33 percent of respondents to a survey from the fall of 2016 questioned whether what they put on the curb actually gets recycled.

“It’s out of site, out of mind, and [knowing] this continues to guide our work,” says Pulley, adding that showing them what recovered materials can become makes a difference. KAB created videos that illustrate consumers’ efforts materializing into commodities.

Further, it’s critical to get the message out often, at places where consumers go, whether a local fair, school or elsewhere. And it’s important to give them information they can take home.

Making education and outreach affordable takes resourcefulness.

KAB has worked with communities to provide tools that can be tailored; for instance the nonprofit helped devise a template that can be tweaked for electronic board messages and door hanger tags and is now working on bill inserts using the same template.

The national organization’s affiliate, Keep Toledo/Lucas County Beautiful, has been working with KAB to identify the most concise messaging. They leveraged data on materials often found in the recycling stream that did not belong there, as well as exact contamination levels. This data drove messaging incorporated in education materials for the city’s curbside program and the countywide drop-off program.

The communication project continues through the summer, and a second audit is planned for September to determine if the joint effort is paying off.

 Determining the best communication and education strategy takes thought.

“We understand from a broad point what works, but it will vary by community. And not all residents learn the same way,” says Dyer, re-emphasizing learning to look through many lenses is key, as is determining the best communication vehicles.

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