There has been a lot of media coverage lately about the problems and challenges of recycling, including the rejection of the tons of recyclables that we used to ship to China. Because of the news, many community members are aware that something bad is going on with recycling.
In our presentation at California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) on August 12 in Rancho Mirage, California, I presented some notable examples of anti-contamination recycling messages by haulers, as well as our own work tackling these issues in Palo Alto and Livermore.
We based our work on actual recycling realities in each city. In Palo Alto, the contamination was focused on food and liquid in recycling. In Livermore, sorting issues (“Wishcycling”) as well as organics cart contamination were affecting the quality of the recycling stream. These findings informed our social media, newsletter content and campaign concept development.
Clearly presented information, using clear calls to action (Wipe, Pour, Scrape, etc.) and good visuals is a start to tackling the problem. Reaching residents using a multi-channel approach, and repeating the message regularly will help get the word out.
Sunnyvale’s “FoodCycle” program is unique in the Bay Area. It truly “recycles” food into a new product—animal feed! The food scraps are collected using a split garbage/food scrap cart, and sent to a facility for processing. Using the garbage cart is a clear departure from nearby cities that collect food scraps in the yard trimmings cart to create compost. To address the many public concerns with this major change, the City needed clear and engaging marketing tools – including a video:
The Gigantic team structured the video around a behavioral process: How do people deal with food scraps? When do they make them? The information is broken down into clear steps:
1) Preparing the collection pail with accepted liners,
2) Showing when and how food waste is created,
3) Detailing what kinds of food scraps are accepted and
4) How to dispose of the kitchen waste in the new curbside cart.
This approach differs from other food scrap outreach that emphasizes what kinds of food are accepted. Instead, the model “FoodCycles” in situations when food waste is generated: cooking/prepping food, cleaning up after meals, and cleaning old leftovers out of the fridge.
We’re proud to say that the video won the Epic Award of Distinction in its category at the California Association of Public Information Officials (CAPIO) annual awards competition in April 2018.
Often in the course of our work we are lucky enough to run into local residents who embody the environmental attitudes that we cherish. Often those people are exemplary in other ways, as well. The Gigantic team met Gail Lillian on a photo shoot for recycling and composting in the food service industry. Her business—Liba Falafel in Uptown Oakland—was the perfect backdrop. Not only is her shop bright and beautifully decorated, it also models a lot of the best practices we wanted to show: reusable cups and silverware for “eat in” customers, color-coded bins in the kitchen and even custom-made signage with actual materials displayed above the restaurant’s self-bussing station.
What motivates her to be so mindful about waste? Gail doesn’t think it’s a big deal. “I just like things in their proper place. Isn’t what I do pretty standard nowadays? Also, restaurants have so much more compostable
waste than other industries—we should be models on how to separate it.”
When she sees the need, Gail also advocates for the community outside of work, be it as a certified mediator, or in her role on the City of Oakland’s task force for commercially sexually exploited children. Does it help to be a restaurateur? Gail thinks yes: “In my experience, chefs are seen as semi-celebrities. Sometimes that helps your voice get listened to, and we should use our voices for things we believe in.”
Thanks, Gail, for making Oakland such an inspiring place to be!
Effective environmental behavior change—like any behavior change—relies on meeting people where they are. This can mean communicating at the point of action, right where and when the behavior is happening. For instance, a recycling flyer sent to a resident’s home is a fine first touch to raise awareness, but placing recycling information directly on the bins or in the area where trash is being disposed of is an important prompt that is likely to get the best results.
What is the most effective way to display recycling/composting information? While each case is different, there are some general rules that will help increase recycling/composting while reducing contamination:
Use consistent language.
Do you say Carts or Bins? Compost or Organics? Make sure the terms you’ve chosen are used consistently in all your print pieces, including posters and bin labels, and also match the content on your website.
Use pictures and words.
Different people learn and remember differently – some people recall words, others, images. Using both will increase your chances of being clear and memorable. Remember that posters are typically viewed from a some distance away, so make sure images and text are sized large enough.
You probably don’t want to list EVERY single item that can go into the recycling or compost. Choose most common items or those often placed incorrectly. The selection of items also depends on where the poster will be used—items recycled in an office are likely different from those recycled in a restaurant kitchen.
Keep it neat.
A clean and simple layout is most likely to keep the focus on proper sorting. If a poster has too much information it may be perceived as too much effort to understand and get ignored. If you’d like to point to details, include your website URL prominently.
Stay up to date!
Did bin colors change with the new hauler contract, or are you now accepting some items for recycling that you weren’t before? Make sure your print and online collateral match your current program.
For further tips on displaying recycling information, see
Our April Fool’s quiz asked readers to say which of four possible waste reduction innovations was true:
A. Self composting organics carts in Abu Dhabi,
B. Pneumatic tube waste system in Germany,
C. Recycling drones program in San Jose, or
D. Cat hair balls in the organics stream in Portland.
The right answer is B! There is, as some of our commenters pointed out, a long history of using pneumatic tube systems to collect trash. The practice began in Sweden, and has been used since in several towns in Europe, at least one Olympic Village, and even at Disney World. Our own Stefanie Pruegel let us know that the system installed in Munich for the 1972 Olympic Games is still in use, now serving the 3,500 condos created from the Village once the games were over. She knows this because her mother lives in one of the buildings.
We were delighted by the erudite and thoughtful responses of so many of the commenters. Of the 16 “votes” received, six picked B, followed by three each for A and C, two for D (ah, those cat lovers!), and one for None of the Above. Thanks for taking up the challenge and responding with such care.
One thing the blog and your responses made clear: When it comes to waste reduction (by which we mean all of the 4RS— not just “reduce”/prevention), there are many right answers…and some have not yet been discovered. No fooling!
(In case you were wondering: the April Fool’s blog author, Avril Poisson, is not a new Gigantic staff member; it’s just a play on words from the French version of April Fool’s, Poisson d’Avril.)
Every so often we run into people doing important environmental work who deserve some recognition. This inspired us to launch a new Gigantic Q&A blog series, highlighting local citizens making a difference.
Master Gardener and Composter
Walnut Creek, CA
Billi Haug knocks you over with her enthusiasm and love for her job. I originally interviewed and photographed her for a quote for the Spring 2014 Diversionsnewsletter, a publication of the Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority (CCCSWA). I was immediately charmed by her high energy and impressive knowledge of gardening and composting. I ended up joining the composting class that I was sent to photograph, and then implementing what she taught at my own community garden plot in Oakland.
KN: What drew you to the master gardener program?
BH: It took two years before I could fit it into my schedule, but it was definitely worth the wait! I was interested in the Master Gardening Program because it delivered an intensive learning experience full of research-based horticultural information.
KN: What’s your approach to promoting composting?
BH: I give talks and present workshops in the community to show how easy and beneficial composting is for the soil and plants. My own experience has convinced me of the benefits for the garden.
KN: Do you have any tricks or tips for engaging groups?
BH: I utilize three keys: know your subject, show enthusiasm and keep it simple. “Show and tell” props can be fun too.
KN: How do you know when you are having a positive effect on your students?
BH: When workshop participants approach me after class to say they can’t wait to get started. I’ve also encountered former students who catch me in line at the market and launch into their composting success stories!
KN: If you could have a superpower for one day, what would it be and how would you use it?
BH: I would love to be a rain fairy. I would swing my wand for a gentle, steady rain to fall all over California for a week.
KN: Who are your heroes?
BH: My uncle was my hero. He taught me about the beauty of nature and the power of being a good steward so that future generations may continue to draw strength and beauty from nature.
Billi Haug received her Master Gardener certification in 1997, and in 1998 she received her certification to be a public speaker for the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, sponsored by the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District. In May 2006 she completed her advanced composting certification. She presents on Healthy Gardening and Integrated Pest Management and gives Home Composting workshops throughout the Bay Area.
During the last week of September, my colleague Stefanie Pruegel (pictured left) and I (pictured right) donned orange safety vests and set out before sunrise to study recycling program participation in various neighborhoods in Livermore, California. Armed with headlamps, clipboards and maps, we walked some 20 miles over five days and flipped about 2,000 recycling and organics cart lids.
This walkabout was part of our observational research to gain insights into residents’ recycling and composting habits, including contamination patterns (i.e., putting things in the wrong carts). The data we gathered will also measure the baseline participation rate. Repeating this measurement after an outreach campaign will allow us to compare the results and determine how successful we were as well as guide the next phase of outreach. This particular kind of measurement can be a messy job, but someone’s gotta do it.
During our lid-flipping adventures, several patterns emerged:
• Livermore loves pizza and is confused about leftovers. In Livermore, the proper process is to chuck pizza boxes and leftovers into the Organics (compost) cart. Pizza boxes are considered food-soiled paper (as are most fast food paper wrappers), and pizza crusts are considered food scraps – all of which goes into Organics. However, we found households were evenly split over whether to put the box in Recycling or Organics.
• Livermore is a thirsty bunch, and cup sorting is a challenge. What is the preferred destination for takeout cups, lids and straws? These items are made of both plastic and paper, and each needs to be handled differently. This leads to a lot of consumer confusion. We found that no matter if the cups were for cold drinks (plastic) or hot drinks, (paper) the majority ended up in the recycling cart, along with their lids and straws. But, the lids and straws actually go into the garbage, and the paper cups go in the organics. This kind of contamination adds considerable expense for waste haulers and ultimately can drive up trash rates. (Please Note: This is a general observation and not a prediction for Livermore.)
• Livermore has beautiful yards, and sorting the waste is a conundrum. Throughout the week we “ooh-ed” and “ah-ed” at the beautiful yards and landscaping in the neighborhoods we saw. However, many residents seemed to assume that anything from the yard belongs in the Organics cart. In fact, certain items like pet waste belongs in Garbage, not Organics. Putting whatever blows (or gets pooped) in people’s yards into the Organics cart causes another costly contamination headache.
We saw some clear consistencies in what was going right and wrong in the carts. Next we will tabulate our findings, design an outreach campaign to focus on the most prevalent behaviors that need to change, and afterwards, check those carts again. We look forward to helping the city and the citizens of Livermore “sort out” any issues and move forward with their waste reduction goals.
The New York City mayor’s office last week announced the rollout of food scrap recycling to City residents after a successful pilot program in Staten Island. While this newest move toward Zero Waste by a big city is encouraging, we suspect that plenty of Zero Waste Outreach will be needed to make this new behavior palatable to blasé New Yorkers. The Big Apple will come up against many of the barriers to food scrap recycling that we struggle with on the West Coast, including countering perceptions of odor and vermin — aka the “yuck factor” — that make introducing food scrap recycling so challenging.
While several headlines focus on New York’s new “leadership” with this move, it should be noted that the City’s broad goal is to divert 30% of waste from landfills by 2017 (and 75% by 2030), as compared to San Francisco’s goal of zero waste by 2020 and the State of California’s goal of a 75% diversion rate by 2020, with an ultimate target of zero waste. New York’s current residential recycling rate is a startlingly low 15 percent.
The City conducted a pilot program in Staten Island, and officials were heartened after reaching a 43% participation rate in the targeted area. However, Staten Island is atypical of New York in that it comprises largely single-family homes. We know from our outreach work that multi-family dwellings (MFDs) are one of the most challenging segments when it comes to organics recycling … and there are a lot of apartment buildings in New York. MFDs lag single family dwellings in recycling rates by a huge margin. In Seattle, for example, single family homes achieved a 70.3% recycling rate in 2010, versus 29.6% for MFDs. Barriers to food scrap recycling in multi-unit buildings include space concerns, the perceived inconvenience, high turnover among residents and building managers, and lack of accountability, as the anonymity afforded by a large apartment building can let people assume that no one will know who’s not using the correct bin.
Believe it or not, curbside food scrap composting has been tried previously in New York, with a pilot program in Brooklyn in the early 1990s. But perhaps the effort was ahead of its time. The pilot wasn’t extended due to concerns that diversion would be low, while the expense and environmental impact of adding another truck route to the waste collection system was high.
In the interim, composting has been championed by a local agency, NYC Compost Project, which supports and promotes community-based composting sites throughout the City. The 20 years that have passed since the Brooklyn pilot likely means a better return on investment
We salute New Yorkers for taking steps toward reducing waste; each diverted pail-full will make a difference. If food scrap recycling can make it there, it can make it anywhere!