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Parallel Access

When you are talking about recycling collection, increasing your recycling rate comes down to three basic premises:

  • You need to get more people to recycle more often.
  • You need to ensure that people are putting the right stuff in the bin so you have a market to actually recycle the stuff you collect.
  • You need to ensure that when people put the right stuff in the right bin, it gets collected in a way that it gets to a mill in a marketable form.

In practice, actually achieving those things can be tricky, but in terms of goals, it really is that simple.

In my experience one of the most successful tools to achieving your goals is a methodology called parallel access, essentially having trash and recycling bins co-located together but visibly different from one another.

Ideally, you would achieve the visibly different by using restrictive lids, but you may also achieve visibly different bins by utilizing well-designed labels and/or color codes. Just be careful that your color code doesn’t negatively impact your aesthetics, as aesthetics can play a surprisingly important role in the effectiveness of your program.

The further apart your bins are, the more effort you are asking someone to exert in order to participate in your program. And the more your bins are not visibly different, you are asking someone to take the time and effort to try to figure out what bin the item they have in their hand goes into. In my experience, when you do, you start to lose people. Maybe not everyone. But over time, as recycling becomes more difficult to do, you start to lose some folks who were only marginally willing to participate anyway. And maybe not all the time. But the further apart your bins are, the more often there will be times when, for even your better recyclers, the inconvenience of your logistics outweighs someone’s willingness/desire to participate. The result is the antithesis of what you are trying to achieve.

Parallel access and collection crews

And parallel access is not just for the folks generating the waste. Don’t forget about your collection crews.

Collection crews are often in a rush. If you are just starting a program and using a dedicated collection crew, chances are they are underfunded and understaffed and rushed trying to keep up. If you are established and have integrated recycling into a broader solid waste collection program, chances are that your custodial and grounds crews have been through a few years of cuts and have been asked to do more with less. Also remember that they have other custodial or grounds crew duties that must also be completed. For those crews, just as with your waste generators, the easier it is to do and to understand, the more likely they are to participate.

Where do they bring recyclables? Is it the same area as the rest of the trash? Or are you asking them to make a special trip to another end of the building? Again, the harder it is to participate, the more likely recyclables are to end up dumped as trash. Or, conversely, if the recycling is too far from the trash, when you have contaminants in the recycling, they are likely to remain in the recycling because it is too much effort to skim them off the top and throw those contaminants in the trash.

Does recycling take the same time slot in the work schedule? In my opinion, it should (or at least be pretty close). Remember, even if collecting your recyclables as a separate “stream” is new, the amount of recyclables is not new. Even before you started recycling, folks were collecting these materials. They were just unfortunately collecting them commingled into the trash and sending them to a landfill. But it is the same amount of stuff they have already collected. You should be able to provide your crews with co-collection carts (a train of two carts, or multiple smaller bins on a cart instead of one larger bin) which lets them pick up the separated trash and recyclables with the same effort. Or alternately, tweak the schedule so that you scale back on the trash collection to make time for recycling collection with little or no net increase in collection time.

How have you set up your recycling program? Is it a parallel part of an integrated solid waste collection system? Or is it a stand-alone program that makes it harder to participate in and understand your program? The answer may have a big impact on your recycling rate.

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