How SWACO is improving recycling in central Ohio one household at a time

How SWACO is improving recycling in central Ohio one household at a time

The organization’s ongoing efforts resulted in it being named the National Recycling Coalition's Outstanding Recycling Organization for 2020.

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January 6, 2021

The Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio (SWACO) was formed in 1989 to help provide solid waste solutions for Franklin County and its neighboring communities. The organization’s ongoing efforts to expand recycling services in the region, educate residents on recycling best practices and promote food waste diversion in area communities recently was recognized by the National Recycling Coalition, as SWACO was named Outstanding Recycling Organization for 2020.

SWACO Communication Manager Hanna Greer-Brown spoke with Waste Today about what the organization is doing to help make a difference in the communities it serves.

Waste Today (WT): What did it mean to be named Outstanding Recycling Organization for 2020 by the National Recycling Coalition for SWACO’s work trying to reduce food waste?

Hanna Greer-Brown (HGB): SWACO was thrilled to receive the award on behalf of more than 150 partner organizations working in central Ohio to cut food waste in half over the next 10 years. While our organization works to reduce all facets of the waste stream, food waste presents one of the best opportunities to increase diversion, reduce our reliance on the landfill and improve our environment and economy.

The recognition of central Ohio’s efforts is a shared celebration of so many tireless advocates in our region and across the country who are helping to shape the way we think about food waste and improve behaviors.

WT: At the heart of SWACO’s Central Ohio Food Waste Initiative are the Save More Than Food campaign and the Ohio Food Waste Action Plan. Can you talk about how these initiatives are helping cut down on food waste?

HGB: The Central Ohio Food Waste Initiative uses an approach called “collective impact” to work with community partners throughout the region in order to collaboratively build a food waste strategy from the ground up and align goals, activities and metrics. As a result of this process, the Central Ohio Action Plan was developed and outlines 20 solution areas tied to preventing, rescuing and redistributing food, as well as recycling food through composting and other technologies. These activities all require shared ownership in order to be successfully implemented, and we think this will be difference-maker for how we achieve our goals.

One of the [initiatives] in the Central Ohio Action Plan was the creation of a public education campaign. Save More Than Food is a campaign which seeks to help all stakeholders in our community—from residents and businesses to policy leaders—understand the benefits of saving food and how they can take action.

When we simply toss out the food on our plates, we’re throwing away so much more, including precious natural resources, money and the opportunity to feed our neighbors in need.

WT: You recently were awarded a $60,000 grant from the EPA in support of the Save More Than Food campaign. How you are using that to target communities to help divert food waste from landfill?

HGB: We’re so appreciative of the EPA’s grant as well as their support. The grant will help us test and document the impacts around some of our investments and educational materials for reducing food waste. In fact, we’ve partnered with The Ohio State University and the city of Upper Arlington, Ohio, to test out the Save More Than Food campaign in order to determine which messages and materials are making the biggest impact and changing behaviors at the residential level.

Working with these partners, we will be conducting research and surveys to understand residents’ behaviors about food waste before and after receiving campaign materials. We’ll also be performing waste audits to determine if the receipt of educational materials changes what a household throws away and [helps citizens make] any improvements for managing their food waste. This research will [culminate in] a peer-reviewed manuscript for academic use.

The Ohio State University will be assisting with the research component, and we’ve chosen to work with the city of Upper Arlington because of their existing (and recently expanded) food waste drop-off program available to residents.

WT: In terms of messaging and implementation, what do you think is most important for helping curb food waste in communities?

HGB: We’ve created messaging about the environmental, economic and social benefits of reducing food waste, and through the EPA grant-funded research with The Ohio State University and the city of Upper Arlington, we hope to document which audiences are most likely to be motivated by each of these messages.

Individuals need personal motivation to voluntarily change behaviors, and the campaign seeks to appeal to different of audiences through a variety of messages that also communicate the local impacts of food waste. Whether it’s financial savings, helping to feed the community or environmental benefits, one of these messages is likely to appeal to community members.     

WT: Along with The Recycling Partnership and the American Beverage Association, SWACO recently awarded $250,000 to the Ohio communities of Pleasant Township and Whitehall under the “Every Bottle Back” initiative, which will go towards providing recycling carts to residents in hopes of promoting recycling and returning plastic back into the production cycle. How do you envision this helping improve recycling efforts in the region?

HGB: Our partnership with The Recycling Partnership and American Beverage Association is helping so many central Ohio communities improve their residential recycling program, which will prove significant in helping us reach our goal for achieving a regional 75 percent diversion rate by the year 2032.

Our goal is to ensure that all communities in Franklin County are able to offer recycling carts to their residents, and we’re well on our way to achieving that by collaborating with The Recycling Partnership and American Beverage Association.

We’re also working with the city of Whitehall to implement a new volume-based trash collection program alongside the new recycling carts. We plan to document and share the learnings from this project in order to help other communities understand potential benefits and adopt similar practices.  

WT: How will SWACO’s “Recycle Right, Make a Difference” educational efforts be utilized in these communities? What will the messaging entail?

HGB: “Recycle Right, Make a Difference” has been in place for several years now. We partner with local communities to mail recycling magnets and other educational materials to residents to provide clarity on what is accepted for recycling in our county and what should be avoided.

We also partner with local broadcasters, social media sites, billboard companies, influencers and more to share how to recycle correctly in our community.

The message is really pretty simple: When we choose to recycle correctly, we make a difference for our environment, our economy and our society. As part of the “Recycle Right, Make a Difference” campaign, we also aim to provide information on how recycling improves the environment and how it creates more jobs than landfilling. We also ask people to visit our educational website at RecycleRight.org if they have further questions or want additional information [to help clear up any confusion].

In the last couple of years, our campaign ads have been seen more than 80 million times and we documented a 60 percent reduction in bagged recyclables being set at the curb in a portion of the city of Columbus when we tested our “Don’t Bag Recyclables” messaging.