Educating Citizens about Recycling
Question: What works in regard to educating citizens on what can and can’t be recycled?
I believe education needs to hit towards behavior and one of the best ways to work on behavior as I’ve heard many times is working with young people. Students, or young students. Sometimes these students actually educate
their parents as well. And the behavior, it’s not just about focusing on what commodity, product or low-value resources, it is a whole ethic of not wasting. It’s funny to me that there are some people that feel it’s okay to throw out the cigarette butt on the ground but it’s not okay to throw out an empty sugar packet. Why? It needs to be a total behavior change, not just focused on a particular product.
I think it needs to start young. The type of materials we have change over time and how we manage those may change as
well. So, it’s a whole ethic of stewardship of all our low value resources. I think starting at a young age
there some great programs out there. I recently heard of landfill camp, which is one of things I just thought was kind of neat. It’s a day camp to work with children about environmental and solid waste related issues. That’s just kind of a neat idea that I hadn’t heard of until recently.
I would agree with that, but I’m also a big fan of education through the design and of the built environment. So, tying education not to just abstract information or even information that is conveyed on paper or electronically, but linking it to the consistent provision of receptacles, signage on those receptacles and clearly identifiable receptacles so that you have this constant physical material reminder. As an educator that is reinforcing your recycling behavior and educating citizens about recycling. In my experience, I’ve seen some of the most well-intentioned educational materials fall down because somebody fails to put a trash receptacle next to the recycling bin in a public place and you know there isn’t this kind of physical reinforcement of the options that you have for source separation. That’s just one example.
A bad recycling system in a public space is such a negative a education point because it basically says to users that this is not a really big deal and that these can look like window dressing. It says trash management system is sort of a key part of the building as important as the the ramps and the water fountains. But, then you
see a bad recycling bin you can’t help but wonder if what you put in there is actually going to get recycled and that just undermines the entire system and people’s participation in it.
For example, in San Francisco there’s great consistency so you don’t have different setups and different forms of describing bottles and cans in one place and metal and glass in another. In New York City we have all this kind of ad hoc terminology that a that businesses and other managers of public spaces are applying to describe the recycling infrastructure in place.
A really good example of what not to do is here in the subway system in New York City which is administered in completely separately from other city government agencies. On their cans, they just say throw everything in this can and we will sort it out later. They do it because the majority of trash that’s discarded in the subway is newspapers and some cans. But, this creates tremendous confusion for residents that don’t understand why they’re being told basically to throw everything in one receptacle underground and then they go up to the street and they’ve got three bins for dual stream recycling and trash.
Something I’ve seen recently which maybe a little bit of a civil disobedience but I think if it’s adopted at a broader arena it may be effective! In those public spaces that only have a waste receptacle I’ve seen that the common recyclables were actually thrown on the ground around that waste receptacle because there wasn’t a recycling container provided. If many people continue to do that I think it will compel managers to put in a recycling
receptacle adjacent to the waste receptacle. Otherwise, they got to pick up the stuff on the ground and throw it out themselves and do an extra step to recycle. I think that’s just something very interesting and maybe that’ll be adopted in more places.
International Vice President, Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA)
Author, Recycling Reconsidered: the Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action