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Finding the Right Level

For many student-run recycling programs, or other pilot programs, we are at that point in the year where they need to start thinking about administrative support, either to continue their program next semester, or to start thinking about building support to expand the program next year. Because of that, let me take a departure from talking about measuring recycling rates and talk for a post or two about getting support for your recycling program.

One of the biggest keys to getting, or more importantly sustaining, administrative support is finding the right level(s) of support. Strong programs are those that have a sufficient stratification of support at the various levels of the organization. A big mistake that many programs make is trying to get the wrong level of administrative support for the particular task they are trying to accomplish. Different levels of the campus administration, or any organization, can support you in different ways and it’s important to understand how, and understand how missing certain levels of support can affect your program.

Lower levels of administration can give you more specific and detailed support (think along the lines of “I can get a custodian to meet you at 3pm to pick up that stuff”). If you have a very specific problem, that is the level of support that you need. That may seem obvious, but I have sat in far too many meetings over the years with folks trying to get high-level administrators to pass inappropriately-dictatorial policies to control campus minutia, when what they really needed was just better relationships with, and support from, lower level campus administrators.

When you are talking about recycling, it often makes sense to start with lower level administrators because they are typically the people who are in charge of the trash and the people who collect it. Ultimately, a big part of collecting recyclables involves modifying how you collect trash, at least once you move beyond the pilot phase of your program.

Regardless of whatever other level of administrative support you have, a significant amount of program success ties back to your relationship with those custodial managers, grounds managers, dining hall managers (in the case of food composting) and other Facilities Management/Physical Plant administrators. If they and their staff are working with you, your program will run far more smoothly than if they are not. They are the front lines, your eyes and ears every day when it comes to what people are throwing away. There are dozens if not hundreds of seemingly-benign decisions that they make every day that will either bolster your recycling effort or completely undermine it depending on how proactively they are working with you.

However, the flip side for lower level administrators is that while their sphere of control is often very strong, it is also very specific. I think it helps to visualize a campus almost as a series of medieval fiefdoms, each with its own Duke or Duchess. That analogy might sound negative, but I really don’t mean it to. I just think it helps to visualize all of the different spheres of influence on campus and folks that are responsible for them. If you are trying to change something in one fiefdom, you need to work with the person in charge of that particular fiefdom. That is critical to understand as your program starts to grow beyond just basic collection logistics. For example, the custodial manager will likely not be able to control whether or not they use too many plastic bags in the bookstore, or whether residence life staff talks about recycling at a floor meeting, or whether a foodservice operation has too many disposables, or whether someone prints too many copies of the admissions brochure, or whether or not the copier in the library that is available to students can print double-sided. To change those things, you will need to work with the people in charge of those particular areas.

The higher you go in the administration, the broader the sphere of control an administrator has. They can set policies that will affect a much wider segment of the campus. However, because their sphere of control is so broad, and they are pulled in so many directions, they are much less likely to get into specifics. Their support will typically come in the form of broad “proclamations,” such as “recycling/sustainability is an important core value to [insert College, University, or company here].” Such proclamations are critical to moving an issue beyond one or two fiefdoms and making it truly a campus-wide issue. It typically unlocks doors that would not have otherwise been opened. It also typically has the potential to allocate funds that would not have otherwise been allocated.

There is a somewhat surreal moment after one of these sorts of proclamations. Suddenly, administrators from whom you thought you had felt some resistance will be asking how the campus could be doing more. Suddenly, for equipment or high-aesthetic containers that you thought were out of your budgetary reach, you will be asked why you aren’t getting more of them. That window doesn’t stay open forever though, so be prepared and make the most of that support when it happens.

One thing that is important to note however is that higher levels of support do not eliminate the need for lower levels of support. Doors may get unlocked, but it is up to you to still make the most of that opportunity, and to do that, you still need the support of the various fiefdoms and the folks in charge of them. Solutions still have to work for them. Remember, there are dozens if not hundreds of seemingly-benign decisions that they and their staff are making every day that cumulatively can make all the difference in how successful your program is.

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Roger Guzowski

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