Ask RA!

This is a new page where we share some of the questions we receive, so others can benefit from our advice…


Q:

I’m contacting you about an issue I see about my school and the neighborhood around it. I go to Pomona High school and I wanted to get some help on how we can get our school to recycle more. At the moment the school is not recycling much at all. They just throw their trash away because it is “cheaper” and they do not want to go through the hassle of educating to teachers and students on what is recyclable and what is not.

But I need your help to explain how much cheaper it would be and how much more we would be able to help the planet if we just went greener and recycled. 

I have done a lot of research on this topic for the past couple of months, and I have seen how the recycling companies pick up the stuff and put it into their machines. I have also seen how they reuse the product that they get. But I took a survey on my community about how much they recycle and here are the results:

  • 39% of people lack the confidence to recycle,
  • 35% of people do not have enough space for other bins (trash cans and recycling bins),
  • 29% of people have lack of time to separate out recyclables,
  • 22% of people do not have enough information about recycling,
  • 21% of people are just too lazy to learn how to, or do it for a long period of time.

This affects our community because the trash that we could be throwing away could go to a recycling center making it cleaner and greener for our planet. Also the national recycling rate in America is 35%, and we can make that number go up overnight if we can just show people how good the planet recycling is. But just 35% of Americans recycling reduces 184 million metric tons of greenhouse gases emissions. Just by showing my community how that recycling can help us our recycling rate has gone up by 30% in the last 3 months. But we have also gone to the local court house and made reverse recycling bins a thing in our local town of Denver CO. And what they do is when you put a recyclable into it, it gives you 5 cents back for every item. And this is showing good results people are more inclined to recycle because they get money back from those items. But other reverse recycling bins have shown up in NYC. They have collected 2 billion plastic bags, bottles, and cans. 

But in conclusion, I am contacting you for more help and some way to guide me to show me what to do next. Or what that we can help us get more people to recycle. If we combine our efforts then we may be able to change people’s minds on recycling…

A:

Thank you for your dedication to recycling and our planet! It’s clear you have invested considerable time into researching this topic and we’re honored you reached out to Recycling Advocates. We are an all volunteer organization dedicated to creating a sustainable future through local action. And that sounds like just what you’re hoping to do, Tryston!

Here are some suggestions for how to get more traction on your journey. 

  1. Find your allies: Being an advocate for change can be challenging and sometimes lonely. Working with others will yield more meaningful results. Plus, everyone has different skills and knowledge which will aid your cause. Given your work surveying the community and with the local courthouse, you may have identified some of these allies already, but we suggest:
    1. Peers – is there a student green team at your school? If not, consider starting one. Who else cares about the work you’re hoping to accomplish? Like other student groups at your school, if you formalize your work, you might be able to get funding from the school, a staff advisor to help you organize, or the chance to connect with other schools in your area.
    2. Parents and teachers – if your school has a PTA or similar group, this could be a great place to find allies. Parents and teachers care about waste reduction as well, and finding those folks can be a great asset to you. Teachers can talk to other teachers and share how important your work is. Parents may have jobs in the waste management or sustainability industry and be able to connect you with outside resources. 
    3. Administration and leadership – convincing people to change can be challenging! Having the support of your principal and/or staff from your local school district can be very helpful. Show them how important recycling is to you and how it is of value to your education. You can probably find teachers to help you with this part as well. For instance, your math or science teachers might be interested in a waste audit. Biology, geography, or social studies teachers might be interested in what you can learn about the environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions related to waste.
    4. Outside allies – it’s also really important to find allies who are working towards the same goal. Maybe there is a green team at another school in your community. Or perhaps the local city or county government has recycling awareness campaigns. Being able to connect with organizations outside of your school can give you new ideas, allow you to partner on new projects, and be a really good sounding board. We suggest inviting one of these organizations to speak to your PTA or student green team. 
  2. Find what motivates your community: there will likely be more than one answer to this question, but you want to find the top three to five items. Because waste and sustainability are connected to so many aspects of our lives, you can make connections between your goals and what others value. For example, here in Oregon, we know people care alot about financial stability. When we want to reduce food waste in Oregon, we mention that most households throw away 25% of the food they purchase. Throwing money away isn’t something most folks want to do, so when we frame the issue from that perspective, people are likely to be less wasteful of food. So not only will they save money, but they’ll also greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food waste. By identifying a value that our community cares about, we can help them with their goal AND our goal!
  3. Know your obstacles: You’re off to a great start with your survey research. It’s not always fun to focus on the negative, but it is really important to know what’s standing in your way. Your results tell us that recycling education is lacking in the community: 22% don’t have enough information; 39% lack confidence; 29% lack the time. All three of these issues can be improved with a strong recycling education campaign, even the time issue because most people realize recycling isn’t very much work when you have the right information. 
  4. Join existing efforts: This goes back to your allies. Maybe the city is working on a plastic bag ban or an effort to increase glass recycling, for instance. You could promote that same campaign in your school community. This lets the community know there is alignment and doesn’t jumble the message, which leads to better understanding and behavior change.
  5. Keep it simple: This is a general recommendation but we’ll give some examples that we see a lot. 
  6. Most humans don’t take more than a few seconds to read a sign or decide where to put waste. It’s really, really important to be consistent with signage and bins to simplify your signs using mainly images without a lot of text, and to use similarly colored bins so that folks can quickly and easily make the right choice. 
  7. You also want to use what’s called “the buddy system”. Most people will not walk further to throw something away. You always want to have a recycling bin with a trash can, otherwise items will end up in the wrong bin, defeating the purpose! 
  8. Lastly, as you learned from your survey, people can feel overwhelmed by all there is to know about recycling. A good way to get participation is with a simple, easy to understand campaign, like the aluminum cans at your local courthouse. You could set up a competition between grades or floors at your school to see who collects the most aluminum cans, or who has the best recycling rates. Behavior change can be hard, but if you make it simple and fun, people will be more likely to participate and it’s more likely the habits will stick. We would be happy to help you design a campaign for this if you want!

Here are some links to organizations which might be helpful:

  • Oregon Green Schools – we know you’re in Colorado, but you might find some school specific resources through this great group here in Oregon
  • Green Schools National Network
  • Ecochallenge.org – this organization hosts virtual challenges with a focus on all things eco several times a year which are open to the public. You may be able to set up a custom challenge for your school with a focus on waste, which would probably have a cost associated. If you’re interested, I’d encourage you to reach out to them directly. 
  • Recycle Colorado – you may have already connected with these folks, but if you haven’t they are doing great work in your area and would probably be a great ally to your efforts.

If there are specific areas of recycling or projects you’d like to discuss, we’re happy to send more thoughts, or set up a time to speak live. All the best to you, and thank you for your work!


If you have questions for us, please contact us!