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Special Report: Recycling

How Waste Management Offers Recycling Education in Communities Across the Country

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Waste Management employs a variety of approaches including, in some cases, door-to-door outreach, in its attempts to improve recycling rates in cities nationwide.

Do you wish the residents in your community were more aware of how to properly recycle? Waste Management has taken on that challenge of educating customers and is employing a variety of means including, in some cases, door-to-door outreach.

“Waste Management has several outreach programs that we are running throughout the country that are designed to test the effectiveness of different educational strategies on reducing recycling contamination,” says Janette Micelli, manager, external communications with Waste Management. “We understand there is a not a ‘one size fits all’ approach as every community and program is different.”

Door-to-Door in the Northwest

In the Puget Sound region in the state of Washington, Waste Management deploys a team of 12 enthusiastic college interns who do door-to-door outreach, explaining the benefits of recycling and offering helpful tips to residents.

This is the fourth summer that Waste Management has hosted the internship program, which typically spans from 10 to 12 weeks. The interns work in 26 cities in the Puget Sound area in Washington. Their goal is to connect with a decision maker and discuss how to improve and enhance recycling outcomes. Interns conduct site visits, check out dumpsters to assess recycling habits and contamination and discuss best practices.

“[The interns have a] conversation … about increasing service or things that the property manager is concerned about,” says Michelle Metzler, manager, public education and outreach, Pacific Northwest Area for Waste Management. “Sometimes, it’s just about leaving a flyer at the front desk. They’re really trying to have the best conversation that they can to educate folks.”

At multifamily properties, which typically have lower recycling rates than single-family residents, interns offer to go door-to-door (with permission from property managers) and talk to families individually. They walk residents through the high level picture of what goes in the recycling bin and drop off flyers and recycling guides that have been translated into several languages including, Amharic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Somali, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Is the outreach program working? While Metzler says they can’t track a direct rise in recycling activity to the door-to-door outreach, they do know their education efforts make a difference.

“We’ve been doing this for four years now, so when we go back to businesses or multi-family properties, they recognize the interns, they generally have a better recycling setup every year, and they’re overall generally doing a better job of recycling,” says Metzler. “To date, we’ve talked to over 60,000 individuals through the internship program. We know that at minimum there’s 60,000 people that know more about recycling than they did before we came to work with them.”

Reducing Recycling Contamination

Waste Management’s takes other approaches in different parts of the country.

“Some of the ways we’ve approached reducing recycling contamination include launching an educational campaign known as Recycle Often. Recycle Right, tagging recycling containers with unacceptable materials, enforcing compliance to ensure service of recycling containers and strategic partnerships with communities,” says Micelli.

Last year, in Siler City, N.C., recycling loads were starting to be rejected at the local Waste Management Raleigh recycling facility due to increased contamination levels estimated at 40 percent. The biggest problems were plastic bags and food waste. Customers needed better education, the facility’s managers realized. In early 2016, Waste Management and the city developed an education outreach plan on acceptable recycling materials which included driver education, a container tagging program, newsletter articles and outreach at local events, explains Micelli. “Contamination was reduced by 20 percent in a few months,” says Micelli.

Similarly, in Elgin, Ill., Waste Management worked closely with the city to develop two pilot programs aimed at changing customers’ recycling behaviors. “The efforts paid off with an overall reduction in contamination of 41 percent from the baseline. The success of the Elgin pilot was a reflection of collaboration with our customers,” says Micelli.

Through its Total Recycling Program, Waste Management sends out teams to visit commercial customers and train them on recycling best practices. They also educate drivers to better spot, address and report contamination issues.

“We created training for our drivers on why it is important to keep the recycling clean, how to identify contamination and how to respond to it,” Micelli says. “We are also developing educational emails that will automatically be delivered to commercial customers when drivers determined there is recycling contamination.”

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