The Best of the Best

Features - General Business

Recent best practices in curbside recycling education campaigns.

September 23, 2010
Steve Thompson

I am often asked by recycling coordinators what one thing can they do today to improve their programs. My answer is always the same: educate, educate, educate!

The Curbside Value Partnership (CVP) is a national program dedicated to helping communities use education to grow recycling participation. Since 2003, we have partnered with more than 23 municipalities and four states to launch and measure education campaigns. And thousands more have benefited from the lessons and best practices gleaned from these successful partnerships.

We know through our years of one-on-one partnerships that education boosts participation, which boosts volume.

What, then, is a community to do? There really is no “magic bullet” in educating residents. What we suggest is that any community, with a little bit of inspiration and guidance, can take a hard look at its own programs and assess where the greatest needs are, developing a program that meets these needs.

You should start by reassessing your overall education strategy or, if one does not exist, by developing one. This is accomplished by identifying a target audience, setting goals and, lastly, developing a campaign that incorporates a mix of advertising, media relations and online outreach, among other strategies. And always remember that even some education is better than no education.


Navigating the advertising world can be a daunting (and expensive) task, even for those with experience. CVP has found that the most effective campaigns combine smart tactics with a laser focus on a specific target audience.

Consider CVP’s latest survey of recycling coordinators’ advertising practices. (This survey was conducted using It was distributed to CVP’s mailing list of more than 4,000 and received approximately 160 responses.) Respondents, who are mainly recycling coordinators, report that while they feel “comfortable” making advertising decisions, they feel they might be missing an important piece of the puzzle. Many report that they are unsure whether they are getting the best deal on their ad purchases or if they are focusing on the right people. Fifty percent report that their advertising efforts reach all residents in the community, while 30 percent report that their marketing efforts reach residents who are already recycling.

Tip #1: Find the right advertising mix to reach your target audience. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs, in its efforts to increase recycling statewide, launched an aggressive social marketing campaign to reach a target audience of 24- to 35-year-old non-recyclers. The department did not identify this audience lightly; in fact, it was guided and shaped by research. The Georgia Department of Community Affairs then developed a humorous and buzz-worthy campaign aimed at the target audience that involved billboards, social media, bus shelters, print ads and bilingual radio PSAs, among others. These are all media the target audience is comfortable with and used to being exposed to.

We have found that it is not enough (and certainly not cost-effective) to concentrate your advertising efforts into one form of advertising. Rather, spreading your budget across several outlets or mediums (such as print, outdoor and even online) will maximize your reach, as you are catching them in multiple ways and probably at different times of day. (More information is available online at

In Hillsborough County, Fla., officials knew they needed to remind residents to recycle and how they could get a bin, but they were not sure whom to target and how to target them. After reviewing data from their three haulers, they determined a county-wide effort would be the most fruitful and that the advertising would need to reach residents living within the county’s large service area. To do this, they concentrated on billboards, bus-side ads and cinema ads that were located in strategic areas. In addition, they purchased time during morning rush-hour traffic reports, which reminded residents to visit a new recycling website,, and would reach a large number of residents. This multi-pronged approach ensured that no matter the time of day, or where residents were, they were being exposed to messages about recycling.


There are many benefits to working with the media to create a positive image of your community’s program. Reaching out to the media is free, as long as you have the time to pick up the phone or to compose an e-mail to a reporter. Also, there is evidence indicating that people are more likely to trust something they read in the news over something they view in an ad.

Tip #2: Always engage local media who can generate free and credible coverage. The city of Griffin, Ga., put media relations to good use when it recently launched an education campaign. Griffin is a city with fewer than 9,000 households with a small but vocal media presence (one daily newspaper, a women’s magazine and two local radio stations.) The small community size allowed program officials to develop good working relationships with journalists at each outlet, which, in the end, resulted in coverage. Right off the bat, the city’s recycling program director was able to secure a radio interview, and, soon after distributing a press release announcing the launch of the campaign, the Griffin Daily News, the city’s only daily newspaper, developed coverage of the campaign and provided information about the city’s program. As the city had little money to dedicate to advertising, this free coverage was invaluable.


Today, no one can afford to ignore the important role the Internet plays in promoting recycling. Whether it’s having a website or a Facebook page, the possibilities are endless. And, if you think your residents aren’t online, think again. According to recent research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project (, in 2009, 74 percent of American adults were online. (This percentage is even higher for 18- to 29-year-olds, at 93 percent.)

Hillsborough County understood the importance of the Internet in communicating with residents when the county decided to build a website to help promote its education campaign. CVP worked with county officials to develop to inform residents about the county’s new education campaign and contest, but more important, to house a new online bin request system, which simplified the bin ordering process for residents and made it easier for the county to process new orders.

Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter also play a critical role in recycling education campaigns. When the state of Georgia launched its aforementioned campaign, the state not only promoted a new website (www.You but layered it with social media components. The state created a blog, a Facebook page and even offered municipalities “widgets” (embedded files) that could allow them to link to the site from their recycling Web pages. They also created a gallery on Flickr (an online photo-sharing site) to allow communities to post pictures taken at recycling events.


Our top best practices for curbside recycling education campaigns are:

  • Start with a plan—Every campaign must start with a plan of attack. Plans we develop with communities include campaign goals, target audiences, key messages and our plans for advertising and media relations. The more specific and detailed you make your plan, the easier the execution of your campaign will be. Sample plans are available at
  • Evaluate your website and URL—As previously mentioned, your website is an important communications tool. Make sure it has the basic information about your program and that it is easy to navigate. Also, if your website has more than one dash or backslash (i.e., www.countygovernmentrecyclingsite.htm&asps/, it’s going to be hard for residents to find it and doubly hard for you to promote.
  • Start small—Walk before you run. Think about simple things you can do to spice things up today.

Steve Thompson is the program director of the Curbside Value Partnership, Stamford, Conn., a Keep America Beautiful program. He can be reached via e-mail at More information on CVP is available at


Best practices for working with the media to promote your recycling program include:

  •  Identify reporters who have already covered your program or are interested in similar issues.

  • Serve as a resource for reporters. Don’t call reporters only when you want them to cover something and be prompt in getting back to them.

  • Make sure any communications you send to journalists are grammatically correct and free of spelling errors.

  • Visit for resources to use when working with the media, including sample press releases and other templates.

Best practices for promoting your recycling program online include:

  • Make sure your site has basic information about your program in a place that is easy to find, not buried.

  • Keep your material fresh. Your site should be updated weekly, if not more often. Any social media sites should be updated a few times per week, minimum.

  • When it comes to using social media, get acclimated slowly. Set up a personal Facebook page first, and then, once you are comfortable, develop one for your program.

Best practices for advertising your recycling program include:

  • Check to see if an outlet will provide discounts to government agencies or for buying multiple ads.

  • For PSAs (unpaid radio spots), work with the outlet to give them the format they really need; this increases your chances of getting free air time.

  • Concentrate on media outlets popular among your target audience.