A Trash Talk Forum was held last month at Schenectady County Community College, sponsored by the Schenectady County Environmental Advisory Council. The purpose of the forum was to address the fact that the recycling rate in Schenectady has fallen to 8 percent, 26 percent below the national average.
What is happening? A recent visual check revealed that in richer Schenectady neighborhoods, nine of 10 people put out recycling bins on trash pickup day, but in poorer neighborhoods, only one in 20 do so.
This means that in poorer neighborhoods, the social norm is working against recycling. But look at the Bottle Bill — it has been a great success.
According to social psychologist and Keep America Beautiful advisor Wesley Schultz (in the October issue of Resource Recycling magazine), “Recycling is a behavior.” As such, it can be modified with appropriate instruction, incentives and disincentives.
Although some people may do the right thing simply because they are asked, the majority will do the right thing only if it is in their immediate self-interest. It is time to incentivize residential recycling.
The city of Schenectady has to pay about $2 million a year in “tipping fees” at the landfill. The only way to lower this cost is to divert more to recycling. Schenectady’s mandatory recycling law requires the city to “provide education to all generators of solid waste ... on how to reduce solid waste generation and how to properly prepare materials for source separation.”
The city has budgeted $30,000 for public education about recycling, so the money is there to support ways of reaching the people.
Lost in translation
SchenectadyRecycles! is a recently formed volunteer group that spoke at the Trash Talk Forum. They are reaching out to neighborhood associations and civic groups to offer ideas.
For example, considering the many different languages that are spoken in Schenectady, it might be a good idea to print new recycling bin stickers using pictographs instead of words to convey the information.
Enlisting the cooperation of landlords is another idea. Landlords are responsible for getting tenants to recycle. As a volunteer group, SchenectadyRecycles! could go to landlords and discuss the problem in non-confrontational terms.
The city could also begin issuing notices to landlords who are not in compliance. Some may say this amounts to a strategy of nagging, but it might chip away at the general attitude of indifference.
In the end, public education efforts are not going to be enough.
The city recently carried out a public education program called “Recyclution”, but we are still here with our 8 percent recycling rate.
At the Trash Talk Forum, Jeff Edwards, a planner with the Schenectady County Department of Economic Development and Planning, outlined a “pay-as-you-throw” program that has worked in other cities. In this program, residents are required to put ordinary trash in specially colored bags — bags available only from the city at a price calculated to offset the tipping fee at the landfill. Over time, residents begin to recycle more in order to cut down on the amount of trash bags they have to buy.
The problem with a disincentive program is that, at least in the beginning, it generates a lot of resistance. How much more agreeable it would be to put in place an incentive program.
Here, the idea is to ignore people who are not recycling and reward those who are. For this, we would need some way of identifying those who are recycling. Technology may provide an answer: Either a bar code or radio frequency identification (RFID) system could be used. This type of program has already been put in place in many cities around the country.
It works something like the automated checkout at a supermarket. When residents sign up for the program, they are given bar code or radio sensitive stickers for their recycling bins. Then, whenever the bin is emptied into the collection truck, the sticker is picked up by a scanner on the truck. The recycling event is electronically recorded and forwarded to the resident’s account. This account is password-protected and visible on the Internet to both the resident and the city.
Periodically, when a certain level of recycling activity has accumulated in the account, the city pays a cash incentive.
Such a recycler identification system provides a transparent and accurate way of recognizing people who recycle. The technology was first used to optimize pickup routes, but it can do much more than that. Since a recycler identification program creates a database, it can become a great metric for recycling, as well.
At present, we measure success by weight. Tonnage is compared year-over-year with population to show a “pounds per person” increase or decrease. With a recycler identification program, up-to-date feedback is available by pickup zone, street or individual user. This type of detail is useful in evaluating the effectiveness of education initiatives and grants.
The program could also provide a way around the landlord/tenant divide. Currently, landlords are the responsible party.
With recycler identification, the tenant can own an account and receive the reward. If a tenant moves, the account goes with him or her.
For those who are getting out and promoting recycling, such a program is something really positive to talk about. Consider the message we have today: “Any property owner who does not separate their recyclable materials from their waste shall receive a fine not to exceed $50 for each offense.” With recycler identification, the message becomes: “Earn recycling credits at home and see the rewards.”
Schenectady could sign up people to the program while conducting public education and giving out low cost, uniform recycling bins. The program could be implemented without changing any of the current recycling instructions or means of collection.
A behavior modification approach can gradually influence an entire population to begin recycling. The important thing to remember is that instruction needs to be followed by tangible reinforcement.
John Watrous lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.