If you're trying to improve recycling in your workplace, these lessons apply whether it be a school, university, business, library, restaurant or any other building. They were learned during a mostly successful four-month effort to restart recycling in Princeton's district schools.
TAKE A LOOK OUT BACK
The only way to know whether a building is actually recycling is to check the bins out back, where they are picked up by the waste management service. The bins may be nonexistent, completely empty, filled with contaminants or, though this is less likely, actually filled with the intended recyclables. For optimal evidence, find out when pickup day is and check the day before.
SUPPORT FROM THE TOP ON DOWN
Get everyone on board, including administration, teachers, custodial staff and kids. A message that recycling matters, whether from above or from colleagues, has to be repeated many times for busy people to take heed and change habits.
A DESIGNATED RECYCLING COORDINATOR FOR EACH BUILDING
If someone in each building with passion for recycling is deputized by the leadership, the program has a much greater chance of succeeding and lasting.
EMPOWER PEOPLE BY LIMITING THE CUSTODIANS' ROLE
Unless the custodians are really committed to making recycling work, it's better if they play a minimal role in the process. Usually this means having a rollout bin not far from offices and/or classrooms that employees/students can take their recyclables to. Custodians then need only roll the bins outside for pickup. In cafeterias, custodians can play an important role in encouraging and monitoring recycling.
People won't pause to read labels. There has to be an immediate recognition of what a container is for. It's best to try for the same color scheme people use locally for their residential curbside recycling.
KNOW WHAT'S RECYCLABLE
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what's recyclable, so it may take some digging to get accurate information. In New Jersey, that means checking with the county government. (Note: If you check your hauler's website, they may have a more up to date list than the local government.) Chances are they have the information in both picture and text that can be printed out from a website. There is likely no difference between what is recyclable residentially and in the workplace. Post the information, particularly the picture, throughout the building, particularly above recycling receptacles. Misinformation reduces the quantity and quality of recyclables.
ALWAYS PAIR RECYCLING AND TRASH CONTAINERS
Any solitary recycling container quickly becomes contaminated with trash. This is a very common error. Most people will throw trash in whatever receptacle is nearby. Whether it be an event, a cafeteria or an office, make sure people have a choice by putting recycling and trash containers side by side, with a visible difference between the two.
TRANSPARENCY IS GOOD
Don't allow custodians to use black plastic bags. Transparent ones make it much easier to monitor whether recyclables are getting thrown out with the trash. Opaque plastic liners on recycling containers can also cover up the container's identifying color, making it look like a trash can.
MINIMIZE USE OF PLASTIC BAG LINERS ON RECYCLING CONTAINERS
Even when recyclables make it to the proper bin behind the building, they are often left inside a plastic bag. Plastic bags are contaminants in any recycling bin. When custodians put plastic bags on recycling containers, chances are greater that the contents will simply be thrown out with the trash.
Last but by far not least, have someone in charge of regularly checking the bins behind the building the day before scheduled pickup. This is the only way to know how much is getting recycled and the level of contamination. Without this information, the feedback loop is broken. Recycling is a collaborative enterprise involving everyone in a building. Negative results serve to cut through illusions, and positive results can be a source of pride.