​4 Keys to a Successful Recycling Program

by Erik Makinson

Over the past 12 years, I have had the opportunity to work with many companies that are interested in implementing recycling programs. What I’ve found is that successful programs, those that maximize capture rates and minimize contamination, are supported by four common elements.

Coincidentally, these are also the barriers which impede the success of most organizations’ programs – if they launch at all.

These elements are:

  • Capital
  • Time
  • Knowledge
  • Motivation

Interestingly, I’ve found it’s not enough to simply have two or three of these elements in place.  If an organization is missing even one of the four, the program won’t realize its full potential.

Let’s explore each element further.

Capital – Everyone expects energy or water efficiency initiatives to require capital, but the fact of the matter is that changing the flow of an organization’s waste stream takes investment as well. While an $8 under-desk recycling bin or a $90 compost bin in a lunch room may not seem that expensive, when an organization has hundreds or even thousands of employees, those costs add up. What’s more, they’re costs that are rarely budgeted in annual facilities budgets - waste disposal is often out of sight, out of mind. For a program to achieve success, investment in the proper bins, signage and material handling equipment is essential. If competition for scarce capital dollars exists, as it does in many organizations, I often encourage my clients to explore non-traditional funding sources. By renting or leasing collection bins, janitorial carts, compactors and balers, the costs of the program can be realized over the same time period as savings, negating the initial capital hurdle.

Time – Let’s face it, in today’s workforce, we all have at least one full-time job. While we may be excited about adopting a side project, all too often the demands of our day-to-day work impedes those good intentions. This is especially pronounced with the implementation of recycling programs. Because these programs impact so many stakeholders – from facility planners, to janitorial, to front-line employees – coordinating the activities of these parties, especially when it’s not their core job duty, can make herding cats seem simple. I’ve found the best way to keep a program on track is to denote one project manager to lead the initiative. This person can be an internal or external resource, but it’s important that the management of the recycling program is specifically stated in their job duties.

Knowledge – If we just sign up for recycling dumpster service, we’ll be recycling, right? While this logic may seem silly, it is essentially the first approach that many organizations take. I’ve found that simply signing up for a recycling dumpster, without thoughtful execution within the four walls of the business, results in two trash dumpsters. Proper bins, signage and training are essential to capturing the desired materials and minimizing contamination. Leveraging the best-practices of other organizations can ensure that your business does not make the same mistakes. If time is plentiful, but financial constraints are significant, great best-practice resources can be found online. If time is limited, hiring an experienced external resource may be your best option.

Motivation – As mentioned above, successful recycling programs require the work of many stakeholders. It’s important for each of these stakeholders to internalize a strong WIIFM, or “What’s in it for me?”. I encourage program managers to have 1-on-1 conversations with each of the essential stakeholders and focus on understanding that stakeholder’s specific job goals and challenges rather than preaching the perceived benefits of the program. It’s then important to clearly articulate how a comprehensive recycling program will achieve those goals and overcome their specific challenges.

In most organizations, some of these elements exist and some do not. I encourage you to take an honest look at your own company. Does your organization have the capital, time, knowledge and motivation to implement a successful recycling program? If so, great… it’s time to get started! If not, it’s time to look externally to fill in the gaps.