Balayage. Law of color. Level system. Patch test. Did you recognize any of those terms? Presumably they seem foreign to you because they are used in the hair coloring industry.

That’s how many Americans feel when curbside recycling programs—and the terms used to describe them—are launched in their communities. Terms such as single stream and commingled and acronyms such as MRF (material recovery facility) and MSW (municipal solid waste) are tossed around like recyclables moving along a MRF’s conveyor belt.

Yet, a recent study revealed that just 11 percent of Americans recognize the term “single stream,” Keep America Beautiful’s Senior Vice President of Recycling Brenda Pulley told attendees at WasteExpo 2016, held in Las Vegas June 3-6. Keep America Beautiful is a Stamford, Connecticut-based national nonprofit that, among other goals, strives to inspire and educate people to take action to increase recycling.

“If you really want people to buy into this, don’t use a nebulous term as single stream,” Pulley said.

Recycling as routine

Most people in the recycling industry agree that recycling needs to become habit for Americans. Making recycling a routine activity among households is a target many across the supply chain—from retailers and brand owners to converters and recyclers—want to hit.

“Too many” large communities remain without curbside recycling programs or have opt-in service with low participation, says Cody Marshall, technical assistance lead for The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia. The Recycling Partnership is a nonprofit with members who work together to make recycling stronger and to recover more materials for use in manufacturing. Since the start of 2015, The Recycling Partnership says it has helped to engender $21 million of new recycling infrastructure through grants and technical support, affecting more than 2 million households.

Marshall says too often residents automatically receive garbage service with a convenient container and an easy schedule, but they need to jump through special hoops to begin curbside recycling service.

“Understanding that recycling is a service and not a money-making venture for cities is the first step,” Marshall says. “It takes capital and a strong operations budget. If cities continue to look at curbside [recycling] as this ‘added expense’ and not as a part of their overall solid waste management solution, we will have a hard time improving curbside programs.”

The Recycling Partnership says some residents appreciate being informed about recycling errors.

He adds that establishing partnerships and maintaining meaningful relationships—including with cart vendors, MRFs and haulers—is key to encouraging recycling among residents. In addition, offering incentives for recycling and, in some cases, negative feedback helps to lessen contamination in recycling containers.

Communities across the country are testing various programs designed to increase recycling rates and participation.

Negative is necessary

“Folks are doing a lot of different things,” when it comes to curbside recycling programs, says Jason Hale, The Recycling Partnership’s communication director. Programs range from “dirty dozen” lists that simply highlight the top 12 items not to include in recycling containers to leaving personalized notes on carts.

These notes, tags or stickers can be positive, i.e., acknowledging good recycling behavior, or negative, such as pointing out incorrect material in the recycling cart. Hale says residents respond well to negative tags and notes at first, with the vast majority receiving just one warning before taking action to correct their behavior.

“When they get this personalized message, even if just one box is checked, it’s still fairly personal by saying, ‘We looked in your bin and saw a problem,’” he says.

Hale continues, “We want them to be able to recycle without thinking about it. That’s the idea: you boost their confidence, remove all the barriers to entry, and then it’s a matter of course. I brush my teeth. I put the container in the recycling. I make my kids breakfast.”

The trick, Hale says, is that negative reinforcement works only in the short term. For long-term behaviors to stick, people prefer the carrot—or positive reinforcement—over the stick.

The most successful curbside programs combine outreach and education in addition to feedback, he says.

Hale suggests pairing awareness messaging along with behavior triggers (such as a refrigerator magnet detailing what is acceptable in curbside recycling bins) and feedback to residents (such as an “oops” tag on carts with unacceptable materials or a positive tag acknowledging when a resident recycles well).

Enforcement without education is frustrating and disenfranchising, he says.

Waste Management Inc. (WM), Houston, has created cart tags to thank residents for recycling right. WM also uses tags to remind residents what should go inside the recycling cart. When combined with other efforts, these tags have helped to decrease contamination levels, says Janette Micelli, corporate communications for WM.

In 2014 WM launched its “Recycle Often. Recycle Right.” campaign, a customizable research-based recycling education program that was developed based on national best practices and provides ready-to-use tools, resources and guides for any municipality, Micelli says.

In Elgin, Illinois, a historic river town 35 miles west of Chicago, a contamination reduction pilot program was initiated in late 2015 to address the area’s 40 percent contamination rate, says Micelli. Plastic bags and bagged recyclables, as in most cities across the U.S., topped the contamination list.

Micelli says a number of initiatives, both positive and negative, were used in Elgin, including customized letters sent via mail; enforcement tags left on contaminated carts; updates to community websites and social media pages; a promotional recycling video featuring the city’s mayor; a “no plastic bags” message on the city’s 331 recording; and promotions at community events. After eight weeks of tagging, a second audit was conducted, and contamination rates decreased by up to 20 percent.

During the second phase of the pilot program in Elgin, high repeat offenders were targeted, and carts were not serviced if contaminated, which resulted in more than 40 percent of these offenders cleaning up their carts after only one time of not being collected.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach as those don’t tend to go too well, especially as you travel across different parts of the country,” Micelli says of Recycle Often. Recycle Right. “It’s about changing the language we’re using when we’re talking to our customers and getting back to basics with how you communicate with [residents].”

Positive pays off

Cart tagging has proved to be an effective strategy, says Javier Flaim, CEO of Recyclebank, the New York City-based operator of an incentive-based recycling program.

Flaim says Recyclebank is a strong advocate for cart tags, preferring to use a positive message whenever possible. “Instead of scolding residents, we have found that it can be more effective to give them a pat on the back for a job well done,” Flaim says.

On the other hand, Flaim also recognizes the need for negative feedback. When education and incentives alone are not enough to spur sustained behavior change, Flaim says penalties can then be used to close the gap.

“If cities continue to look at curbside [recycling] as this ‘added expense’ and not as a part of their overall solid waste management solution, we will have a hard time improving curbside programs.” – Cody Marshall, The Recycling Partnership

“We don’t like to employ negative reinforcement if we don’t have to, but we also realize that it is sometimes necessary for addressing certain costly problems, like recycling contamination,” he says.

For more than 12 years, Recyclebank has worked with municipalities, haulers and third-party providers to make recycling relevant, educational and impactful—enough to create lasting habits around recycling, Flaim says. In 2015, Recyclebank partnered with 300 U.S. communities with more than 3 million members who recycled a combined 1.6 billion pounds of material and earned $63 million in rewards. Recyclebank members earn points for recycling, participating in events and taking quizzes or pledges that can be redeemed for discounts or products.

“More than anything else, experience has taught us that our success is directly correlated to how well we collaborate with our municipal clients,” Flaim says.

He says leveraging data and insights is the most critical element to tailoring the Recyclebank platform to meet the unique needs of each municipality.

“Different residents require different levels of education” based on how much recycling knowledge they have, says Flaim. As a result, Recyclebank customizes content to drive desired behavior in each city, focusing on incentivizing residents to encourage recycling.

Over the years, he says, Recyclebank’s methods of communicating to residents have increased drastically, as technology and its program have evolved. Flaim says Recyclebank has a variety of channels, including mail, email, social media or in-person discussions at a community event, to reach every resident in a community. Connecting with residents through multiple platforms has proved worthwhile.

“We strongly believe people want to make a difference in their communities, but many often need a little nudge to take action,” says Flaim. “Rewards and incentives act as that often-needed nudge.”

The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at