Back to basics with recycling education

Columns - Waste Watch

October 4, 2019

Once upon a time early in my career, I was in the audience at an educational conference when a speaker informed a room full of environmental advocates that the little numbers within the chasing arrows on the bottom of their plastic bottles were the number of times the bottle was recycled. Needless to say, it was uncomfortable to watch as the speaker was brought up to speed in real time.

Giving the aforementioned individual the benefit of the doubt, they had received their information from someone, somewhere, at some point in time. The fact is that, like a real-life version of the children’s game of telephone, a miscommunicated message manifested itself in the spread of misinformation over time.

In my opinion, this example can serve as a warning to recycling managers on the need for clear and direct communication when speaking to residents about what goes in the recycling bin.

Undoubtedly, the waste and recycling industry is facing substantial change when it comes to what is and what is not recyclable. The Resin Identification Code system (the No. 1-7 on the bottom of plastic containers) was introduced in the late 1980s. That means an entire generation has grown up with it. This generation has solidly entered the workforce and, in some cases, is now raising a new generation of its own. This new generation is also growing up with the internet and access to a slew of information from infinite sources. While misinformation abounds online—one look at social media will tell you that—countless opportunities to educate and inform also exist.

There is a phrase attributed to being an old Chinese proverb (again, you have to read everything online with a grain of salt) that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.” In my estimation, this phrase can be applied to recycling education today. While we can’t go back in time and educate our communities on recycling best practices and what is and is not recyclable, the good news is that we can start today.

These recycling education efforts need to be responsive to a variety of audiences and factor in how diverse subsets of the population consume information. Recyclers need to come to their audience in the places and ways that the message is most likely to be received. This means choosing the right forum and constructing the right message in the right language with the right context.

So, while industry insiders may argue whether a material recovery facility can or should accept a No. 1 plastic container with or without a neck, for instance, let’s consider that the basic fundamentals of recycling aren’t yet wholly understood by many in our communities across the country.

When planning your next recycling campaign, I urge companies and recycling personnel to remember to explore all feasible channels in order to improve the industry’s education and outreach efforts. Because if one thing is certain, it’s that we can’t remedy the problems of the past—we can only work to do better in the future.