Study Highlights Best Practices for Increasing Recycling at Workplaces

Study Highlights Best Practices for Increasing Recycling at Workplaces

A simple step—providing employees with a desk-side recycling bin along with smaller trash bin—can lead to a 20 percent increase in office recycling, according to a new study.

The “Recycling at Work” study was commissioned by Keep America Beautiful with support from PepsiCo Recycling and CBRE and conducted by Action Research. The study took place during a six-month period in 2014 and was aimed at defining best practices for recycling programs that foster improved recycling behaviors in the workplace and result in an increase of quality and quantity of materials collected.

The research focused on the effects of office bin placement on recycling rates and level of contamination. In addition, the research team collected qualitative information about the potential issues encountered prior to and during the study’s implementation, as well as other important factors to consider when setting up a workplace recycling program.

"We want to get smarter and better understand how we can be most effective at getting individuals to recycle more and recycle more of the right things," says Brenda Pulley, senior vice president of recycling for Keep America Beautiful. "Much of the focus has been on curbside recycling, as it should be, since that's the low-hanging fruit. But when you look at other opportunities, the workplace setting appears ripe for making inroads."

The EPA has estimated that 45 percent of municipal solid waste is generated in workplace settings. While Pulley says that estimate may be too high, it still underscores the overall opportunity for improving recycling rates by reducing waste in those settings.

Four conditions were tested in offices in Atlanta, Boston, Houston and San Diego in buildings managed by commercial real estate services firm CBRE. Each city has single-stream recycling programs.

  • “Equal-size” provided employees with two equal sized bins, one for recycling and one for trash. This is one of the more common office set-ups.
  • “Recycling only” provided employees only with a desk-side recycling bin, but no trash bin. The set-up was meant to draw attention to recycling while making it more difficult to dispose of trash.
  • “Little trash” gave employees a desk-sized recycling bin equipped with a small hanging trash bin. Having both bins makes recycling convenient while increasing the difficult of generating large amounts of trash.
  • Lastly, a control group was provided only with recycling information without a change in their office setup.

All conditions received an informational flyer on 10 items commonly found in offices—five recyclable items and five trash items. Recycling bins were also stamped with a logo created for the project featuring three common recyclable items—an aluminum can, a plastic beverage bottle and office paper. Meanwhile, trash bins were stamped with a “landfill” logo.

The results from the research were compared to baseline audits conducted before the new bins were put in place.

The study found the “little trash” approach yielded improved quality of material collected in the recycling bin—an increase of 20 percent in the quality of recyclables—along with a significant increase in knowledge about recycling and proper recycling behavior. After implementing the “Little Trash” condition, offices significantly increased the proportion of material in the recycling bin that was actually recyclable and decreased the amount of trash collected in the bin. There was also a decrease in the amount of recyclables improperly placed in the trash bin, especially that of office paper. Paper in the trash bin was reduced to nearly zero. Moreover, the respondents of the “Little Trash” approach had a positive experience with the program.

For “equal-size,” participants reported they liked the project, but the data did not show an increase in recycling behavior. According to the study, “There were more recyclables and less trash material in the recycling bins, but not fewer recyclables material in the trash.” The control group had “almost no significant changes in the knowledge, attitude, self-reported behavior, and perceived difficulty of the survey, and no significant changes in their waste audit results,” according to the study.

Meanwhile, in the “recycling only” condition, “many participants did not like the project, both in the survey and prior to implementation.” It led to four offices dropping out of the project and found that “participating offices may have been throwing recyclables in the trash that would have ended up in the recycling bin prior to the project.”

"We were surprised," Pulley says. "We know that convenience matters. We know that ongoing, clear, concise communication matters. We know that having a champion matters. What we’re trying to do is figure out how to be most effective in those areas."

The data showed that use of the small bin resulted in "sending the same amount of weight to the MRF, but there was a 20 percent improvement in the quality of the recycling stream," Pulley says. 

In terms of next steps, Pulley says KAB plans to promote the results of the study and share examples of the signage that was used in the test workplaces. It will also conduct additional studies.

Based on the frequency of the 10 targeted items in the recycling and trash, the study suggests the following items should serve as higher priorities for an office recycling program:

  1. Office paper is the most frequently recycled material, but it was still present in the trash in 50 percent of offices.
  2. Plastic beverage bottles and aluminum beverage cans are about equally present in recycling bins and trash bins. Similar to paper, these materials remain a priority.
  3. Paper towels were very frequently ending up in the recycling bin, with a steady decrease of presence over the course of the project.
  4. Food scraps had enough of a similar pattern to deserve a priority focus, though they were not present in recycling bins as frequently as paper towels.

For more research findings and recommendations, go to the “Recycling at Work” website. 

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