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Environmental Leading Practice: Color-Coding Recycling Collection

By Bob Gedert, SWEEP Steering Committee Member, President National Recycling Coalition

 

san-francisco-compost1Using “leading practices” in recycling collection can possibly achieve diversion of 90 percent of discarded materials from residential homes, based on recent waste characterization studies. Is it realistic to establish a collection program that diverts 90% of household discards? Such high diversion goals require new “leading practices” that go beyond the realm of “best practices.” High collection goals require an effectively educated and dedicated public citizenry

In this blog, I focus on public education and trust of the collection system as a means to increase diversion collection volumes. Most communities “educate” their citizens on how to recycle, yet consistently across the US there are recycling doubters that can spread false claims that recyclables collected are landfilled. This claim originates from news stories in the 1980s that demonstrated some recyclables were landfilled due to poor markets. How do you dispel this claim today?

Some communities have adopted color-coding techniques to make it easier to identify which container to use. In January, the US Composting Council, Keep America Beautiful, and the National Recycling Coalition just released a call for voluntary use of green for organics, to reduce contamination. Blue has become an industry standard for recycling.

The City of Austin went one step further and embraced the color-coding scheme on collection containers, collection trucks, and public education collateral. They choose brown for trash, blue for recycling, and green for organics, painting their fleet of 200+ collection trucks. This embracement of specific color choices informs the citizens which container to use, reduces contamination, and reduces one more public use barrier. In addition, and a very important point, if any citizen doubts their recyclables are actually being recycled, they are instructed to watch their blue cart being emptied by a blue truck, and to follow the blue truck to the recycling processing facility. Whether the citizen actually follows the truck or not, there is public confidence built into the color-coding system.

This is one example on building a trust relationship with your citizens. To achieve high citizen participation requires going beyond the norm and applying leading edge practices. SWEEP is being developed to provide a set of comprehensive performance standards to support the efforts of communities and the waste industry to promote continuous improvement towards a zero waste society.

The Municipal Market SWEEP Standard evaluates the environmental, economic and social aspects of delivering municipal solid waste activities. The standard will be achievable by municipal governments of all sizes and covers a range of activities, whether contracted out to waste industry companies, or provided by municipal employees.

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