Recycling Program Evolution, Part 1

Roger Guzowski

Roger Guzowski

Every recycling program goes through 3 stages:

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

Understanding where you are in the evolution of your recycling program is an important tool. Don’t worry, the point is not to judge your existing effort. The goal is only to help you improve your recycling program. Recognizing where you are can help you do just that.

One important reason to know where you are is that it helps you determine what your next step is. If I know that someone is just starting a recycling program, my advice to them is very different than it is for a mature program.

If you are just starting out, the primary goal is to prove you can collect enough stuff and either save or make enough money to justify continuing the program. Often that involves using whatever resources you can scrounge – volunteer labor, whatever hodge-podge of used bins and barrels that folks are willing to donate, and a vehicle that is half dead and slated for removal from the fleet – but could be band-aided together for one more year.

I vividly remember some of my own student-run pilot programs. I remember spending hours wrapping colored duct tape and laminated paper signs around a sorry-looking battalion of re-purposed trash cans and donated syrup barrels from a local soda bottler. There was a truck so old that the transmission fell out on the side of the road one day (literally) when we were picking up a load of recyclables. I remember how grateful I was in those days when the low-paid student workers sorting the paper would find an adult magazine in the pile (back in the days when such things came on glossy pages instead of pixels) – because it meant they would show up every day for work the next week to see if they could find more of them.

These are the kinds of things that make great stories and badges of honor for anyone who has started a recycling program from scratch. Unfortunately, they don’t make very effective long-term recycling programs.

At some point, hopefully as soon as possible, you need to transition to the next step in the evolution of your program. Eventually you start running out of equipment to band-aid together. People stop donating bins to re-purpose if you ask for donations over and over again. Eventually the initial enthusiasm wanes and it gets harder and harder to find volunteers or student workers to work their butts off for little more than kudos and pizza money. Eventually you need to take the next step in your evolution and invest in the program.

If you are just initiating a pilot program, my advice to help you get to the next step is to consider focusing on a few high-value materials like corrugated cardboard, white office paper, clean newspaper, or aluminum cans (maybe deposit containers if you are in a bottle bill state). Even though you will get less tonnage, you have the potential to make significant revenues from the sale of your recyclables, revenues that you can reinvest in developing the program.

My other piece of advice to someone starting out is that when you compare yourself to another program, recognize where you are in the evolution of your program and recognize where they are. Don’t feel bad if a more mature program has achieved stuff that seems insurmountable to you. Every mature program was once at the point where you are now. The most important thing is that you have made it this far and want to keep getting better.

What stage is your program at?

In part 2 of this blog, I will discuss the more mature phases in the evolution of the program.

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