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Community Recycling Keys to Success

In recent posts we’ve reviewed four successful programs; the City of Clifton, New Jersey, the City of Beaverton, Oregon, the City of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Solid Waste Authority of Palm Beach County, Florida.  These programs reside in different parts of the country and the programs are structurally different. So what makes them successful?


First, convenience stands out as being highly important.  A successful program can be achieved despite a lack of convenience, but this is the exception rather than the rule.  Clifton, New Jersey, is one of the most successful programs in the country and is not particularly convenient to use.  The other three successful programs employ weekly curbside collection in a single or dual stream system.  Including multi-family dwellings in the program also helps boost rates as evidenced by the data from Beaverton, Palm Beach County and Ann Arbor, and convenience takes on greater importance for these participants.  Rather than being an argument against the need for convenience in a program, Clifton sets an example of what can be achieved when the community as a whole is dedicated to the effort.


Household economics are not as strongly correlated with recycling rates in these seven communities as expected.  Only Beaverton has a PAYT pricing system, and only Ann Arbor is utilizing financial incentives.  However, it should be kept in mind that research overwhelmingly supports PAYT as an incentive to recycle and it is likely that these communities experience higher recycling rates due to other non-economic factors such as culture and leadership. 

Among the economic factors listed, tipping fees have the greatest impact on recycling rates with the top two programs having significantly higher tipping fees than the other programs.  Rather than affecting the individual’s decision to recycle, high tipping fees cause businesses and governments to enact policies that reduce the overall amount of waste to be landfilled.

Mandatory Recycling

On the policy front, mandatory recycling stands out as being effective.  It is present in two of these programs.  Beaverton and Palm Beach County do not have mandatory recycling and still experience high recycling rates.  However, the fact that a community is successful without mandatory recycling doesn’t mean the program wouldn’t benefit from its implementation.  Mandatory recycling is particularly effective when it comes to inducing non-recyclers to start using the program.  EPR also stands out as a successful policy initiative.  It is employed at some level in all of these programs.

Outreach and Leadership

The most significant factors contributing to recycling success in these four programs are community outreach and leadership.  The most successful programs all put a significant amount of effort into community outreach at the local government level, and most have further support at the state level.   

Leadership at the local and state levels is a key component of successful programs.  Those programs that are already successful and those that are experiencing growth all have the benefit of strong leadership.  If leadership does not show investment in environmental initiatives the populace is unlikely to make them a priority.

Community Culture 

The overriding factor in the success of every one of these programs is the community itself.  The cultures in Beaverton, Clifton, Palm Beach County and Ann Arbor are supportive of environmental initiatives.  This exemplifies the importance of societal norms in promoting pro-environmental behavior. 

Lansing, Michigan, uses the same single stream recycling program as Ann Arbor, and is also a college town and a state capital. Lansing has strong leadership in support of green programs from it’s Mayor, and has a large education and outreach budget. But Lansing’s residents are not as engaged in ‘going green’ and the recycling rate is 33%. One need look no further than the differing levels of success and attitudes of residents in Lansing and Ann Arbor, programs which are nearly identical in municipalities situated a mere 60 miles apart, to see the effect that a community’s culture has on recycling behavior. 

Communities that do not have a pro-environmental focus will have to put extra effort into developing that culture, which will require strong leadership.  Those communities will have to focus more on policy initiatives and outreach until the culture changes and environmental concern becomes the societal norm.  This takes significant time and effort, but it should be kept in mind that none of these communities started out as the environmentally-friendly cities that they are today.  At one point in time, none of these communities had a recycling program.  The cultures that are in place now are the result of leadership and policy that guided the community in that direction.

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