Participation Encouraged

Features - Municipal Recycling

Five strategies designed to help increase participation in curbside recycling programs.

October 21, 2011

Local recycling services for paper, glass and aluminum have been around for a generation. And, unfortunately, many of the approaches to communicating recycling services and their benefits remain in the 1970s.

A powerful opportunity exists for recycling organizations to refresh their communications and outreach activities to more deeply connect with community members or customers.

Here are five communication strategies your organization can use to increase participation in your recycling programs.

NO. 1: Understand Your Audience
People are motivated to recycle by different things. Their decision to recycle may be based on an important value, peer pressure or habit. For some, recycling is not about "green" considerations, for others, it is profoundly environmental.

It is important to research, know and understand your organization's audience. Demographic factors, such as age, gender, race, primary language, employment status and the presence of children in a household, can affect participation.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • The family for whom English is not the primary spoken language—How effective will an English-only direct mail piece be in motivating members of that family to participate in curbside recycling?
  • The family with two school-aged children who have studied recycling in school—The kids bring home a colorful, easy-to-understand refrigerator magnet about preparing for recycling day. How likely are they to recycle?

By simply ceasing to take a one-size-fits-all approach to communications, your organization most likely will see an immediate improvement in its communications goals.

Additionally, barriers may hinder people's ability to recycle. Barriers can be physical, like living in a rural community without accessible recycling services, or they can be behavioral, like being unfamiliar with recycling practices. Knowledge "deficits," which can develop from a lack of consistent or ineffective communication from local recycling organizations, also can limit participation.

What barriers are present in your community or customer base? Your communication materials can become more effective if they address the existing barriers to recycling and how those barriers can be overcome.

NO. 2: Create a Content Calendar
A clear understanding of current communication goals, strategies and activities can provide a helpful road map. Create a content calendar (for downloadable content tools, check out, listing content such as news, messages, events or stories and defining the channels through which they will be shared. A marketing or communications professional can help you to create and implement a content calendar.

Before starting a content calendar, it can be helpful to identify communication goals first. Examples include:

  • Increase drop offs of electronic scrap by 25 percent.
  • Eliminate "old style" recycling habits (e.g., tying up newspapers).
  • Encourage current recyclers to increase the items they recycle, thereby increasing tonnage by 5 percent.

Then, identify communication priorities. Communication priorities will be unique to the needs of your organization and its audience. With recycling programs, priorities typically focus on operations, services, benefits or social engagement.

Next, let's focus on key messages. A strong key message will directly address a stated communication priority. For example, perhaps you want to inform the community about e-scrap collection days at the local material recovery facility (MRF). These events are new and unfamiliar. A key message will focus on why someone should participate in the new program. Clearly communicating what e-scrap is, when the events are taking place, how to prepare items, when to bring items and how these events will benefit the person likely will help you to accomplish your communication goals.

Your messages may be delivered in many different forms: stories, testimonials, dialogues, cartoons and even videos. Consider engaging volunteers, board members, staff, partners and community members in developing these messages.

Finally, select the communication channels that will help you reach different members of your audience. Channels include direct mail or e-mail, social media, public relations, events, paid media or advertising and earned media, such as blogging, speaking or writing.

Again, it may be helpful to look at your audience. A 25-year-old person is likely to be reached through social media and smart phone apps, whereas a 75-year-old person may respond best to a community meeting or an newspaper article.

NO. 3: Use Games and Competitions
"Gamification" is an emerging term in the field of marketing. It simply means to add elements of a game or competition to drive a desired behavior. For examples of how games can communicate recycling behaviors, check out Trash Tycoon on Facebook or Michael, Michael Go Recycle at

One example of a simple, yet effective, competition around curbside recycling is from Huntington Woods, Mich. This small, suburban community has been deploying the "Recycler of the Month" program for several years. Each month, volunteer members of the local environmental advisory committee visit curbside setouts and select a "Recycler of the Month." Each winner receives a special cart sticker, a small cash award and coverage in the local press.

The awards program has proven so popular residents often call the city to find out how to win the honor, according to Claire Galed, manager for the Huntington Woods' Department of Public Works.

"It is the most effective public relations about our recycling program that we've ever had," Galed says.

NO. 4: Engage through Social Media
Social media is as appealing as it is inexpensive; however, it can take considerable time and planning to attract the community to your social media presence.


Take a look at a handful of your recent communication vehicles, like your website, e-newsletter or a brochure. Review each piece and answer these questions:

  1. Does the piece focus on the organization’s capabilities or on the audience’s recycling needs?
  2. Does the piece use jargon, acronyms or language unfamiliar to its audience?
  3. Is the piece text-heavy, graphically unappealing or dull?

If you answered “Yes” to two or more of these questions, consider working with a communications professional or a graphic designer to craft a compelling approach to your communications and outreach activities.

– Megan Thomas

American Waste & Recycling, Kalkaska, Mich., uses social medial to create engagement. The locally owned and operated garbage collection and recycling center features links to its Facebook, Twitter and Youtube accounts on its homepage,

"We use social media to engage and inform our audience, to build our tribe and, in turn, to get them to beat the drum for us," says Kelly Ignace, director of marketing and public relations for American Waste. The company uses Facebook to talk about recycling programs and promotions, to provide links to videos of the recycling stream and as a place for people to engage. "Our goal is to make it as friendly as possible and also to demystify the process of how materials are recycled," Ignace says.

In terms of recycling, social media can be used to communicate information about new programs or operations. A great first step is to take your key messages and related content and then weave them in to your social media platiforms.

NO. 5: Seek out Partners
The right partnership can provide new ways for an organization to communicate and engage with existing or new audiences. Beyond operational synergies, a partner organization can provide access to its communication activities: newsletters, events, website, blogging, social media and even paid media, such as television or print ads.

When seeking out a new partnership, consider these four dimensions:

  • Does the organization have a similar or complementary mission and desired outcomes from the partnership?
  • Does the partner organization (and yours, for that matter) have the capacity to undertake your joint activities?
  • What type of reputation does the potential partner have in the community? Are there negative associations to be addressed?
  • Note the availability and follow-through of contacts at the potential partner. Are calls and e-mails promptly returned? Are meetings frequently cancelled or postponed?

Companies can engage partners in several ways. First, they can share recycling goals and initiatives with suppliers and customers or ask for inclusion in the partner's corporate communications. Suppliers can provide tools, supplies and services for your recycling initiatives. Additionally, local businesses can co-sponsor recycling awareness events, and nonprofit partners can offer legitimacy to an initiative in exchange for financial or operating support.

Municipalities can work with local nonprofits, schools and volunteer groups on delivering strategic communications and to create more "feet on the street." Local businesses that sell to the community can include recycling initiatives in their external communications or on signs and literature in their stores or offices.

By trying one or all of these strategies, your organization may be able to invigorate its communications activities and increase recycling participation with its target audience.


The author is the owner of The Sustainable Agency, in Birmingham, Mich. The Sustainable Agency,, partners with recycling organizations to create marketing and communications campaigns designed to build awareness of and participation in recycling programs.