Impact Occupant Behavior To Increase Recycling Rates

Facilities teams are a key to encouraging and easing this waste management effort.

By Randy Hartmann
From the February 2019 Issue

Facility managers of public spaces face many recycling challenges, including the cost of placing and maintaining recycling bins, persistent contamination, and marginal participation rates. Public space recycling for facilities include opportunities in common public spaces and individual workspaces.

waste management recycling rates
(Photo: Monkey Business Images)

While most people have consistent exposure to the same recycling bins and list of acceptable items that can be recycled at home or in their workspace, outside of those settings they must constantly familiarize themselves with where recycling bins are located, what the bins look like, and what materials are accepted in those bins.

By creating greater access to public space recycling, facility managers will capture more materials to be recycled; create and support a culture of recycling; and demonstrate that recyclable materials have value—that they can be made into something new and useful—thus, elevating the rationale for changing one’s recycling behavior.

Moreover, public space recycling is an important element of a facility’s infrastructure that users have come to expect. Public space recycling positively reinforces the community values or “ecosystem” of an office park, hospital complex, school campus, sports venue, and other on-the-go settings that serve the public as well as the facility owner’s workforce. Research has shown that a community’s curbside recycling program benefits from greater participation and recovery when it is supported with public space recycling opportunities.

Changing individual behavior is a key component of preventing litter and improving recycling rates, and environmental cues can make a difference. Keep America Beautiful, a national nonprofit community improvement organization, works to change individual behaviors by transforming anti-social littering to prosocial recycling—behaviors that are closely linked—through years of public space recycling research and observation.

Recycling activity for most people in the home or workplace is about building habits that are supported by having familiar bins in predictable places coupled with a consistent understanding of what can be recycled. Facility managers can take a fresh approach to designing their public space recycling programs by considering the public’s thought processes. Recycling bins in public locations come in different shapes and colors and are labeled to accept different materials. Research has shown that the most effective public space “bin” matches the bin color used in a community’s curbside program and is a different shape than the trash bin co-located with the recycling bin. If there is not a collection container conveniently located and clearly identified, people who are predisposed to recycle—already with busy lives and other priorities—will casually toss waste items (correctly or incorrectly) wherever they see the opportunity.

So, while Keep America Beautiful makes recycling bins in public spaces more accessible through national grant programs supported by its corporate donors, it’s incumbent upon everyone involved in the recycling process to make the cues easier to identify and understand to ensure waste ends up in the proper place.

The good news is that people do want to recycle. In a Keep America Beautiful consumer recycling tracker study conducted for the 2016 America Recycles Day, 80% of respondents reported that recycling in public spaces was important to them, but 34% indicated that it was difficult to accomplish. Ultimately, when deciding where to dispose of an item, people default to the closest receptacle. Regardless of its intended purpose, waste or recyclables that create “contamination” in a recycling bin will reduce the actual amount of materials being recycled.

What are some of the ways in which public space recycling behaviors can be improved? The design and placement of bins must adapt to consumer needs by being conveniently placed and simple enough to be used properly without focused concentration. Here are a few additional considerations for facility managers to help change recycling behavior:

Place recycling and trash bins together. In most circumstances, it’s important to co-locate recycling and trash bins immediately next to each other so they touch. Locations with recycling bins paired with trash bins (“twinning the bin”) averaged 15% less contamination and increased the capture rate for recyclables by 30%, as measured in a recent Keep America Beautiful study.

Encourage materials for recycling. Work with suppliers of convenience products and on-the-go food packaging in proximity to your facility to find out of those items are recyclable and accepted for recycling in your program.

Use restrictive lids. Restrictive lids typically involve either a small round opening for cans and bottles, a narrow slot for paper, or hybrid combination for mixed collections. A flap or other physical barrier can help minimize bees and other pests and ensure recyclables are not blown out of the bin and become litter. Restricting the size of the opening, according to a 2008 study (Duffy and Verges, 2008), increased the container recycling rate by 34%.

Use clear, simple labels and signage. Avoid ambiguous words or ones that aren’t obvious to non-recycling professionals. Pictures and illustrations are best.

Choose the right bin. Whether it’s the entire bin or just the lid, make sure the recycling bin is a different color than the trash bin. A bin color for recycling that differs from trash increased the rate of proper sorting from 52% to 88% (Montazeri, et al, 2012). It’s also recommended that the public space recycling bin color mirrors local residential programs.

Keep bins clean and well-maintained. Overflowing or badly contaminated recycling bins will also lead to people treating them as trash bins. Regular collection and cleaning are crucial to a program’s long-term success.

Place items made from recycled content near recycling bins. Let facility users know how they play a role in supporting a circular economy by placing products made from recycled content near and around the recycling bins (e.g. furniture or carpet manufactured from recycled beverage containers).

Research suggests another successful behavior change strategy is simply to ask individuals to make a public commitment (e.g., by signing a written promise or pledge), which is an extremely effective persuasion strategy. Most people have a strong desire to be consistent, and once they have made that public commitment, they are more likely to maintain the desired behavior in the long term. Making a voluntary commitment also helps individuals perceive themselves differently—they are likely to internalize the importance of this issue—and that can lead to long-term behavior change.

“Justifications emerge as particularly effective in public space recycling,” California State University San Marcos Psychology Professor Wes Schultz stated at Keep America Beautiful’s 2018 America Recycles Day State of Recycling Forum. Dr. Schultz, who also serves on Keep America Beautiful’s board of directors, added, “Increasing knowledge will typically not result in behavior change—because of other barriers. Commitments are very effective when promoting recycling.”

As the average person’s life has gotten more complicated, and with the dramatic increase in single-use convenience packaging, the shared responsibility of recycling is essential. To do so requires a combination of ensuring that the proper infrastructure is in place in addition to educating and motivating consumers to take that one extra moment to think about putting their waste in the proper place—whether it is truly garbage headed for the landfill, or an item that can be recycled to become something new in a circular economy.

waste management recycling ratesHartmann, senior director, affiliate operations of Keep America Beautiful, served as the Chief Operating Officer for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) from 2010 to 2018 prior to joining Keep America Beautiful. In his current position, he is focused on providing technical assistance and resources to assist Keep America Beautiful’s more than 600 community-based affiliates build and foster sustainable communities.

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