All recycling begins with a decision, a choice, an action. Residents decide what they should do with an item that they want to get rid of. That choice—either tossing the can, bottle, jar, newspaper, cardboard box into the trash or placing it into a recycling container—can have a significant impact on a community’s recycling efforts.
The right choice can lead to excellent results including environmental and financial success. The wrong choice can lead to big problems including low recycling rates, contamination of commodities at the material recovery facility (MRF), rejected loads at the mill, excessive operating costs and low production levels.
Getting residents to make the right choices every day is critical to the success of every recycling program. For that reason, education is a key component of the recycling process. Education is needed to making sure people know what to recycle, when to recycle, where to recycle and, most importantly, how to recycle.
Good recycling education programs explain, inform, motivate, persuade and encourage people to recycle. Such education is needed to change behavior and to create a culture where the benefits of recycling are understood and the specific ways to recycle are clear. Comprehensive educational efforts encourage participation and result in higher recycling rates and make participants better recyclers. Through education we attempt to modify residents’ beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. In doing so, it is important to present clear information and explain to people the reasons for recycling as well as the proper way to recycle.
Key Reasons for Resident Education
Education is an important component of every recycling program. We need to educate residents because:
- Recycling programs change over time. We need to make sure people understand and embrace the changes that take place.
- People forget fast. Especially today with so much going on around us.
- Education creates support for a program. Participation will be stronger if the recycling program is highly regarded and valued by the participants.
- Education is a way to grow your program in both quantity and quality.
- Programs differ from one community to the next. When a person moves to a new community, they need to know how the new program works and what can be recycle.
- Good education efforts will help ensure a supply of high quality recyclable materials.
Education is also a tool to address problem areas and misunderstandings about a particular aspect of recycling program. For example, if a MRF is plagued by unwanted plastic bags which can hinder processing equipment and negatively impact the efficiency of the equipment, public education can help explain to participants the problems that plastic bags present and encourage people to return the bags to drop off location at stores.
When educating, it is important to identify those “teachable moments” —opportunities to reach out to the audience and explain what we are doing, when we are doing it, where the program is being implemented, why we are doing it and how the program works. Typically, there is a big educational splash that accompanies the rollout of a new recycling program. But there are many more teachable moments that need to be captured to keep recycling top of mind. With social media, traditional media, the advent of mobile devices and proven techniques, making appropriate use of teachable moments becomes crucial.
With any educational program, it is important to provide clear and consistent messages about recycling. And, repetition can aid learning. People need to hear recycling messages about what to recycle and how to recycle on numerous occasions for it to “sink in” and become part of their everyday lives.
Finally it is important to remember that recycling programs typically costs tens of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. From the purchase of trucks, recycling containers, processing equipment and balers, big dollars are being spent to create the infrastructure necessary to recycle.
A comprehensive educational program will help get a good return on the investment made in recycling. Informing resident can take many forms, including a combination of flyers, mailers, public service announcements, billing inserts, newsletters, website, advertisement, signs, stickers and mobile apps. Whatever you use, be creative and stay consistent. Remember, education is not free. And, just like purchasing a truck or a new recycling equipment, education requires a plan, a budget, a schedule and a way to measure the impact.
Every successful program starts with one person making the right decision. Modifying that behavior and persuading people to recycle properly is the critical role that education plays.