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Not Your Grandma’s Recycling Program

Written by Waste360
Published: June 25, 2014

Beyond the Bin

Regardless of what recycling program a city has, most programs heavily rely on expensive infrastructure to drive success. Many programs don’t fully address the host of other important factors that create good recycling habits and behaviors—education, community outreach, incentives anddigital tools. This is not to say these structural changes weren’t desperately needed—they were, and in many cases still are needed in communities across the country. However, there is more to be gained by coupling infrastructure changes with proper individual engagement.

At Recyclebank, we’ve seen how infrastructure conversions along with education, community outreach and incentives can move the needle on recycling rates far beyond infrastructure change alone. Communities like Cherry Hill, N.J. and Corpus Christi, Texas saw great success with a broadened commitment to sustainability, not just a new recycling program. This strategy of infrastructure, education and incentives helped Rochester Hills, Mich. nearly quadruple their recycling rates in five years. By implementing a recycling education and rewards program, plus single-stream and larger carts, the city was able to go above and beyond what could have been achieved with structural changes alone.

Other companies are taking an innovative approach to reducing the amount of waste we send to the landfill by tapping into the sensibilities of the connected consumer.Greenredeem USA  and ecoATM have both created reverse vending machines where they take back bottles, cans and cups or old cell phones, MP3 players and tablets in exchange for rewards or money. By putting these machines in big, crowded areas like malls or ballparks, these companies are putting recycling front and center beyond just the curbside.

Preserve has developed a program to collect yogurt cups, hummus tubs and other #5 plastic containers, which aren’t accepted in more than a third of American towns and cities. The company then makes toothbrushes, razors and more out of the materials—upcycling the material to give it a longer life. This helps make recycling a priority at all touch points—at the point of purchase and at the point of disposal—and allows consumers to recycle beyond their curbside.

The average person likely doesn’t know that #5 plastics are not recyclable or why and this education is part of Preserve’s mission. The company also develops unique engagement tools like the Gimme 5 Local Heroes Recycling Contest, which prompted people to submit top recyclers in their community. Similarly, TerraCycle is another example of a company that collects waste—anything from solo cups to candy packages to shoes. The company then gives these materials new life in the form of upcycled items like a notebook with a Cheeto wrapper cover or a picture frame made out of a bicycle chain. With this program, TerraCycle has diverted over 2.5 billion units of waste from landfills around the globe.

Additionally, ThredUp and Gazelle are taking advantage of digital tools to engage consumers in reducing clothing and electronic waste—two categories that contribute heavily to landfills . Both products give off toxic gasses like methane when decomposing, which is one of the largest contributors to global warming. Not to mention the sheer space, as of 2012, 11 million tons of clothing were in 126 million cubic yards of landfill space. On the education side, Earth911 has a website and app to make recycling more convenient by telling users where to recycle just about any material in their local community.

All of these companies rely on a mix of educational and digital tools to engage people around more sustainable behavior. The traditional recycling program has entered a new era where infrastructure innovations alone no longer move the needle. There is no still silver bullet to increase diversion and every community needs to weigh the risks and rewards of each program to find what will inspire their residents to create a measurable impact. While success and goals are different for every community and person—we can all agree that any new strategy that takes us a step closer toward achieving a world without waste is worth considering and promoting.

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