Joining the Culture Club

As recycling rates level off in big cities across the country, recycling coordinators are finding that they can boost participation rates by targeting ethnic communities.

About 32 million people, or 14 percent of the U.S. population, don't speak English at home. The percentage of non-English speakers is significantly higher in states with large legal and illegal immigrant populations. For example, non-English speakers represent more than 25 percent of the population in Texas and 30 percent of the population in California. More than 20 percent of the population in both states speak Spanish at home.

To increase recycling rates in non-English speaking communities, recycling coordinators must bridge cultural gaps effectively.

Recycling educators in California -the most ethnically diverse state in the country - have valuable lessons to share.

Recycling Aluminum Skin Boxes The first and most obvious way to communicate the recycling message to ethnic communities is to translate written materials - brochures and recycling instructions - into the community's spoken languages. In San Francisco, 42 percent of the residents don't speak English at home, so materials are published in three to six languages, says David Assmann, the recycling and hazardous waste program manager for the city and county of San Francisco. After English, San Francisco residents are most likely to speak Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog (the language of the Philippines), Vietnamese and Russian.

The city of San Diego hired Pacific Gateway Group, San Diego, a public relations and consulting firm specializing in ethnic media, to translate its used oil recycling materials into Spanish, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian.

Marizza Paoli, director of Hispanic marketing for Pacific Gateway Group, agrees that language is the main barrier to increasing recycling rates in ethnic communities. Non-English speakers assume if a brochure is in English, it must not really affect them, Paoli says.

But simply taking a flier and literally translating it word for word from English to Spanish or Chinese won't work. For example, in an early draft of a Chinese brochure for the San Francisco recycling program, "aluminum can" was translated into "aluminum skin box," Assmann says.

Instead, translating the concept, rather than the exact words, should be the goal. Colloquialisms can help to convey a message in the vocabulary non-English speakers would use. But take heed, Paoli says, variations can exist within a language, so a Spanish-speaking person from Mexico might use different words to describe recycling than someone who grew up in Spain or Argentina. By asking two or more people who learned different dialects of the same language to review written materials, you can eliminate problems and find the phrases that best communicate your message.

After using the appropriate language, selecting the messages that will motivate the target community is another challenge. Leading with the "reduce, reuse, recycle" message may not be the best choice. For the city of San Diego's used oil recycling brochures, Pacific Gateway Group emphasized how convenient oil recycling can be and the fines associated with illegal dumping. "We found that the main motivational factors in the Hispanic community were convenience and the law," says Doug Perkins, president of Pacific Gateway Group.

In San Francisco and Oakland, recycling educators found that ethnic communities were more motivated by keeping the streets clean and making the connection between recycling and their children's future than with "save the planet" messages. In both cases, environmental messages still were included, but they were lower on the list of reasons to recycle.

The visual presentation of outreach materials also is important. Seemingly small details can have profound effects on public response. For instance, what seem like innocuous colors, graphics and numbers may have a negative meaning in other cultures. San Francisco's Assmann points out that red indicates good luck while yellow does not in the Chinese culture. In some Asian cultures, certain numbers are bad luck.

Tuning into the Right Channel Even a perfectly translated brochure with influential messages and an appealing layout will have little effect if it is not presented to the community through the proper channels. Working with local organizations such as immigrant networks, churches and leaders in the targeted communities may be beneficial.

Pacific Gateway Group asks community leaders to provide feedback on its materials before they are distributed. "They help us understand how to emphasize different parts of the subject matter," Perkins says. Community leaders also can weigh in on debates over word choice. However, ethnic community groups may be hierarchical, and getting to the person at the right level in the organization is important, Perkins warns. This is especially true in Asian communities, which are typically very close-knit and where recent immigrants rely almost exclusively on community leaders for guidance.

In Oakland, engaging community organizations works well. Gabriel Meil, a project coordinator with the Spanish-Speaking Unity Council, organizes several events year-round to encourage Hispanic and Vietnamese residents in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood to reduce their waste. At June's Festival de la Familia (the Family Festival) and October's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Meil shows community members how to recycle and compost - skills he hopes they'll take home with them.

He also encourages performers to incorporate recycling messages in their acts. In addition to the large community-wide events, Meil visits with as many small, neighborhood groups as he can, such as neighborhood alert groups, churches, Alcoholics Anonymous and grandmothers' groups.

"Litter and illegal dumping are big issues in the community, so I show them what they can do about it through recycling," Meil says.

Meil also reaches out to Hispanic youth by hosting a two-month art class where they create altars and skeletons out of recycled materials for the Dia de los Muertos festival. Workshop participants also have made calendars out of scrap materials and distributed them in the community. A billboard on a busy thoroughfare features a local youth encouraging his community to recycle.

The Spanish-Speaking Unity Council also is exploring the possibility of a bicycle reuse/repair shop to link community economic development and recycling.

The San Francisco Recycling Program is planning to use community focus groups to intensify its outreach in non-English speaking communities. City coordinators hope the focus groups will help them more accurately pinpoint which messages will motivate community members to recycle. Noting the questions residents ask during focus groups helps to identify pertinent issues that aren't clear in existing materials.

Focus groups also can identify which media outlets are the most popular. For example, San Francisco's five Chinese daily newspapers are the best way to reach that community, while Chinese television is virtually non-existent, Assmann says. He also has found that radio is most effective for reaching the Hispanic population, while the African-American community responds best to television advertising.

Furthermore, using community organization newsletters often is more effective than a mass media campaign. "You may reach only a few hundred people, but they really rely on and trust the newsletters for their information," Assmann says.

The Personal Touch Ethnic print and electronic media outlets work differently than English media outlets, Perkins says. Personal contact is much more important in determining issues selected for coverage than in the English-speaking mainstream media. Since establishing personal relationships with ethnic media professionals, Assmann says his program gets consistent and positive coverage from Hispanic and Asian media outlets.

"Protecting families and children (and relating that to recycling) is a message you can get them to cover," Perkins says. "The ethnic media focus on local issues and community events, so it's much easier to get information about local environmental programs on the air or into print."

Direct personal contact almost always is effective, no matter what the language. The city of San Francisco telephones about 10 percent of its population - about 30,000 households - each year.

Combining phone calls, media outreach and other educational activities during a targeted neighborhood campaign will increase recycling rates about 5 percent, Assmann says. He recommends asking people who speak the community's language to staff booths at community events and to make presentations at schools and adult English-language classes.

Overall, Pacific Gateway's Paoli says ignorance, rather than ethnicity, is the main obstacle to encouraging non-English speaking communities to recycle. "If the messages aren't included in the ethnic newspapers and radio programs, [the residents] just don't know about it," she says. However, when recycling messages are put into their native language, it can yield a great response.

This year, the U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C., predicts California's ethnic residents will comprise more than 52 percent of the state's population. Nationwide, the Census Bureau predicts the percentage of non-Hispanic white residents will drop from 71 percent in 2000 to 68 percent in 2010.

Learning to communicate with people who speak different languages and live by °different customs will only grow in importance for recycling coordinators in the new millennium.

Recycling rates in ethnic communities can be increased if you:

1. Speak the language, but don't use literal translations.

2. Select messages that motivate the target community.

3. Recognize that the smallest details - words, colors, graphics - may have significant cultural meaning.

4. Spread your message through partnerships with local community organizations.

5. Select the media outlets your target community relies on most for its news.

6. Use direct, personal contact.

Recycling professionals working with ethnic communities can find helpful information and networking opportunities through the Minorities Recycling Council (MRC). Formed in 1991 as a council of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC), Alexandria, Va., the MRC is working to facilitate dialogue and activities on environmental issues impacting minority communities. It also is working to develop minority participation and leadership in recycling.

The MRC frequently sponsors conferences and workshops to explore the role of minorities in recycling and to discuss public relations and media strategies to reach under-served communities. For example, a workshop at the Lancaster, Ohio Closing the Loop Conference, in March 1999 featured sessions on the economic impact of recycling, environmental justice and the importance of community relations and outreach programs in minority communities. The MRC also sponsors the "Outstanding Minority Business" award as part of the NRC's annual awards program.

For more information about the MRC, contact Arley Owens, MRC co-chair: (614) 265-6363. E-mail:

1. Spanish

2. French

3. German

4. Italian

5. Chinese

6. Tagalog

7. Polish

8. Korean

9. Vietnamese

10. Portuguese

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C., 1990 Census

California: Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog.

Florida: Spanish, French, German.

Texas: Spanish, German, French.

New York: Spanish, Italian, Chinese.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, D.C., 1990 Census