Jumpstart your office recycling

By Mary McIntyre

Clear information goes a long way to enacting a successful program

You’ve got a recycling program in your workplace, but it’s got lackluster support. People aren’t certain what item goes where, with trash in the recycling bins and recycling in the trash bins. Some folks are meticulous, others are confused, and some don’t care. Now what do you do?

The good news is there are some easy fixes. The bad news? In my experience, there’s no downside, assuming your recycling ambassadors take a gentle approach to encouraging and educating your co-workers. “Recycling Ambassadors…WHAT?!” you might be thinking. Yes, you will need some recycling enthusiasts on your team—every office has them, so don’t worry—but more on that in a moment.

Years ago, back in the early days of recycling, I was living in Baltimore, working in the corporate offices of a regional bank. The building owners contracted with a major waste hauler to start a paper recycling program in our building. Overnight, two-foot tall cardboard recycling bins appeared throughout the 20-some-story building. Boxes were strategically placed to recycle all sorts of paper. Clear instructions were written on the boxes of the types of paper that were acceptable and not acceptable. Pretty straightforward, right? Wrong! Some people were confused, others concerned (what if confidential papers ended up in the recycling bins instead of the shredders?), and some were careless. Sometimes trash ended up in the bins. Lots of times recyclable paper got thrown out.

I saw an opportunity, at least within my own division on the 15th floor, to educate my colleagues. Yes, I became a self-nominated recycling ambassador! (Are you surprised?) Not only was I thrilled about the new program (I had just moved to Maryland from California, so an office recycling program was the norm for me), I decided to enhance it.

My apartment complex recycled aluminum cans, so I decided to informally extend this recycling program to my office. I placed a recycling bin just inside my cubicle and offered aluminum can recycling to my colleagues. Every couple of weeks I would take the cans home and recycle them at my apartment complex. It was easy for me to do, I got to know my colleagues better, and I became a resource for people with questions about our recycling program. Ultimately, I discovered that our workplace recycling problems were less about people not caring and more about people being confused or forgetful. They needed some recycling knowledge and they needed to develop a new habit of recycling.

Fast-forward to 2019 and I see friends and colleagues struggling with similar challenges in their own workplaces. Their offices have established recycling programs, the building managers support it and, if they live in Salt Lake City, there is a city ordinance that requires it. Still, the programs falter. Here are four points to reinvigorate your workplace recycling program without annoying your co-workers:

  1. Get people involved: Select a few recycling ambassadors to help cheerlead and to be a resource. Peer pressure can work wonders, done in a light-hearted, encouraging, non-combative way. Rotate your ambassadors quarterly to get even more people involved.
  2. Communicate: Re-introduce your program with a simple email announcement via internal message channels. Be clear about what can and can’t be recycled in your message. Identify your recycling ambassadors so that people know where to direct their questions.
  3. Educate: On the bins themselves, provide clear signage (pictures and words, because some of us are visual learners) to remind people what goes where. Send out regular reminders and recycling tips. Place bins in key public spaces. For every trash bin, make sure there’s a recycling bin right next to it.
  4. Conduct a waste audit: This doesn’t have to be an involved process, nor a dirty one. Take a few days or a week and each day go through the contents of a few trash and recycle bins, ones that get a lot of traffic. Take pictures and share via internal channels to highlight the “good” and the “needs improvement.”

Finally, let’s not underestimate the power of habit. Studies have shown that certain habits are more powerful than others: keystone habits. They can have a domino effect, positively impacting other areas of your life. For example, people who make their bed every morning are more productive throughout their day. One simple habit has a proven ripple effect. Recycling could be a keystone habit for you. Imagine the positive impacts on your productivity levels just by dropping that can, plastic bottle or plastic container in the right bin.

Mary McIntyre is the former executive director of the Utah Recycling Alliance, a local nonprofit focused on programs that encourage reuse, recycling and resource conservation. MaryMc@CatalystMagazine.net



Salt Lake City Business and Multi-Family Recycling Ordinance

Eight Keystone Habits That Can Transform Your Life

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg



This article was originally published on May 31, 2019.