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.
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
A constant challenge in environmental outreach is how to portray an issue in a way that reaches people with varied worldviews. Neuroscientist George Lakoff and the concept of framing has been much in the political news lately, as opposing sides try to create impressions (also known as bias) in their listeners’ minds. Lakoff notes that all communication has frames:
“The elements of the Communication Frame include: A message, an audience, a messenger, a medium, images, a context, and especially, higher-level moral and conceptual frames.”
We know that facts alone don’t change behavior; to succeed, a message needs that emotional element that reaches the deeper parts of our brain. How can environmental outreach frame important issues in a way that reaches, convinces, and persists to make long-term positive change in behavior?
Lakoff gives one example in his blog, suggesting that instead of talking about environmental regulations, we reframe laws as environmental protections.
Framing a concept like food waste should be simple – no one likes “waste,” right?
The message of buying only what you need, using leftovers, and composting what is left is quite straightforward, but we have a long way to go to tackle the huge amount of food that is wasted. Two recent examples show how framing the issue, while acknowledging the facts, can show success.
Activist Selina Juul has worked for years on a multi-touch approach to reducing food waste in her adopted country of Denmark. She recognized that change had to come from all sides: business, government and, most of all, consumers. In this video, she reframes food waste as disrespectful to nature, farmers and to the individual’s own time and money.
Ugly? No, Beautiful! A more local success story focuses on our friend and colleague Jordan Figueiredo. Jordan’s Ugly Fruit and Veg campaign aims to reframe frequently wasted, less than perfect produce with humor and heart, in order to make what had been rejected, acceptable and even coveted.
Jordan couches his multi-touch campaign work as Funactivism, which counters the view some hold of activists as overly serious or shrill. Jordan successfully uses many of the tools of activism and behavior change: touting simple individual steps, assurance that individual actions make a difference, use of pledges and norming, combined with a top-down approach to companies. He has used charming photos spread via social media to challenge people to change their attitudes about what is “ugly,” reframing ugly fruit and vegetables, and by extension, reframing our view of what is beautiful.
Choosing the most effective way to frame an issue takes research, patience and testing. Most of all, it takes creativity and always remembering that change comes from within, and people act because of what they feel even more than because of what they think.
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!