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Recycling Program Evolution, Part 2

Every recycling program goes through 3 stages:

  • Pilot Program
  • Intermediate phase
  • Integrated into daily campus operations, waste removal, and sustainable materials management.

In part 1 of this blog series, I talked about navigating from the pilot program and moving toward a next intermediate phase.

It is this intermediate phase that seems to be the most complicated for many programs to get through. Every transition from one phase to the next takes planning and hard work. But in over 20 years of working with recycling programs, I have seen more programs get stuck in this intermediate phase of their development than any other. Some spend decades in this phase whereas others progress through it relatively quickly to get to the integrated sustainable program that they really want.

I think the issue is one of vision. How do you see that intermediate step?

For many new programs, I think that people are so excited that their pilot program has been successful and that someone wants to continue the program that they end up focusing on extending and institutionalizing their pilot program. As I mentioned in part 1, I don’t think that can work indefinitely. The parameters that helped to make your pilot program a success eventually change. Eventually enthusiasm wanes. Eventually worker safety and fire-code enforcers stop giving you a pass. Eventually aesthetics matter. If your program is a significant net cost, eventually funding starts to dry up and gets shifted to other priorities.

Rather than focus on where you have been, start looking to where you want to end up. Use this intermediate phase to start strategically putting together the pieces of the puzzle to get to where you ultimately want to be, even if you don’t have all of the pieces you need yet.

For example, say you are a small campus or facility and eventually want to get to a point where your collection barrels are semi-automated wheeled carts that are dumped hydraulically by a collection truck (something I highly recommend). If you are buying both the carts and a small “park size” collection vehicle with hydraulic cart dumper(s), you are likely looking at an investment of at least $100,000. For a larger campus or facility, you could be looking at a cost that is easily double that. That is an insurmountable initial cost for many new programs.

As a result, folks get overwhelmed and buy the lowest-cost non-automated barrels they can. To collect those barrels, they continue to use the same kind of box van, step van, or pickup truck they used during the pilot program.

Here is the eventual fatal flaw with that approach. If you don’t start buying the carts that you ultimately want, your marginal cost to implement the system that you want is always going to be at least $100,000 (likely more because I rarely see the cost of bins or trucks drop over time). And, as a double whammy, it is going to be harder and harder to raise that $100,000+. Why? – because you have already spent some of the relatively finite amount of money that your facility or campus was willing to spend on recycling to buy the bins that you ultimately didn’t want.

What if instead, you had at least started to purchase the semi-automated carts that you ultimately want. If you do that, every time you purchase more carts, you are lowering the marginal cost to implement the remainder of the system that you want. In the interim, you can still manually collect these semi-automated carts with a regular box van. Or, you could contract out your collection (most waste & recycling haulers have a vehicle that can dump semi-automated carts). Either way, ultimately you have dramatically reduced the marginal cost to also invest in the collection truck and remaining bins without wasting your finite financial and political capital on bins you don’t ultimately want.

What do you want your recycling program to be when it grows up? Are you taking the steps to get it there or is it stuck in a never-ending adolescence?

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Roger Guzowski

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