Recycling programs in apartment complexes and multi family dwellings


Most residential recycling programs focus on serving the single family household. There are many reasons for this.

  1. Many of these programs are funded through a tax assessment which is difficult to levy on multi family dwellings.
  2. There is a perception that apartment dwellers are less likely to recycle (although research shows demographics play little role in this behavior).
  3. It is difficult to design a program for multiple housing units that will not result in illegal dumping of non-recyclable goods. Like unmanned drop off centers, recycling depositories in apartment complexes are often targets for dumping all kinds of household waste including mattresses, electronics and other durable goods.
  4. These programs tend to be labor intensive requiring more complex collection methods and more outreach effort to ensure participation.
  5. Cost is the single overriding factor. Curbside collection for single family homes is relatively easy to manage and allows for employing automated collection systems. This is often not possible in apartment complexes where there is no curbside access, and other methods require either additional equipment or additional manpower, or both.

Despite these challenges, there is a huge portion of the waste stream that could be captured by including these residents in the program. The 2010 US Census finds that 22% of the population lives in multi family housing of four units or more. That’s 22%, or almost 1/4, of the municipal solid waste stream!

So how do municipalities go about including MFDs in their recycling programs?  The EPA has some suggestions.

  • Use 90 gallon containers like those currently used in curbside programs that can be incorporated into an automated collection system.
  • Set out at least three containers for various recyclables categories to decrease contamination.
  • Furnish one set of containers for each 15 to 19 households.
  • Consider making participation mandatory.
  • Consider contracting collection to a private hauler.
  • Provide an education program for managers and residents.

These suggestions are helpful, but there is little information on how to actually implement these ideas. Employing automated collection will only work in complexes that have clear curbside access. If the curbside access is a long distance from many of the housing units, they will be less likely to participate based on the convenience factor. Roll-off containers in multiple locations will increase convenience, thereby increasing participation, but also increase the liklihood of contamination and illegal dumping. Mandatory recycling is only effective if you can enforce it. Consider the difficulty involved in determining which household put out which items, and which households aren’t recycling at all. Private hauler contracts come with their own headaches associated with monitoring and ensuring performance.  It’s easy to see how the challenges mount when considering recycling programs for MFDs.

Still, there are communities that are providing this service and experiencing a great deal of success with it.

Recycling Collection

Collection is one of the primary concerns associated with an MFD recycling program. Most programs aren’t going to be able to pay for door-to-door service, although this has been done in high-rise units in some cities. So there need to be collection points that are easily accessible to haulers. As with so many other aspects of recycling programs, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there is evidence that 90 gallon carts are the optimum choice based on ease of mobility, collection capacity, and decreased risk of contamination. High-rise buildings, however, may need to utilize larger collection containers, and there may be no curbside collection option.

There are new hardware options available for high-rise apartment buildings that will allow the existing garbage chutes to be retrofitted to accept both recyclables and trash.  The State of Massachusetts published a best practices manual for multi-family dwellings in which it reports that these systems have been installed in locations in New York and Florida, and that pilot programs in Toronto, Canada, produced increased recycling volumes of 25% to 45%. These systems allow for up to 6 additional container options (in addition to garbage). The resident simply pushes a button to select which option they want before putting their materials in the chute. The collection bins are located alongside the garbage containers making the logistics of hauling the recyclables away no more difficult than collecting the trash.  There is, of course, a cost associated with installing this equipment, but according to the Massachusetts report most complexes experienced a three year return on investment in the form of reduced garbage disposal fees.

In addition to determining how the recyclables will be collected, the question of who will perform the collection must be addressed. The US EPA found that the most successful programs utilized private haulers rather than municipal collection systems. This is echoed in the Massachusetts best practices document. When addressing recycling collection in MFD’s the issue is volume, and private haulers are often much better equipped to handle bulk volumes than municipal entities. They experience lower overhead costs associated with economies of scale, and those cost savings are passed on to their customers. They also tend to have more collection options at their disposal based on having larger collection fleets designed for different applications, and they are more likely to be able to deliver a collection solution in any situation.

Increasing Recycling Participation

Convenience has long been touted as critical to participation in any recycling program, but for MFDs it’s absolutely critical. If the only available option is for residents to transport their items to a drop off center, they are far less likely to participate, particularly if they don’t have their own transportation. So having an on-site option is a primary concern. The closer that collection point is to the dwelling itself, the better. The EPA suggests one collection site per 15 to 19 units. Noting that there are many apartment complexes with buildings of 12 units or less an alternative guideline would be a minimum of one set of collection containers per building. It’s a good idea to locate the collection point in the same place as the trash containers. In this way it is no more difficult for residents to dump their recycling than it is to dump their garbage. This is also the beauty of the high-rise collection chute system described in the previous section.

Storage space is another obstacle for apartment dwellers. Most single-family dwellings keep their recycling bin in the garage or beside the house until collection day. Apartments don’t have this kind of space. Even the standard 18 gallon collection tote can present a storage problem for many apartments. Providing collection containers that are easy to store is another key to MFD recycling success.  The City of Beaverton Oregon has addressed this issue with their ‘In the Bag’ program. Each apartment unit is provided with a reuseable recycling tote bag. The bag is collapsable and can be hung on the back of a door or easily stored in a closet.

Outreach is the other critical element in a successful MFD program. Creating an outreach program that is not only engaging, but continually ongoing, will help to keep residents participating. Many of the municipalities with successful MFD recycling programs also provide an outreach consultant that makes periodic visits and performs on-site educational programs for residents. Instructional posters should be installed at collection points to eliminate confusion about what can be recycled and which containers to put materials in. Providing printed materials is also adviseable. Due to the frequent tenant turnover in most complexes, conducting these programs on a recurring basis is critical.

Paying for the Program

Many programs are funded through tax levies on property owners. Interestingly, these programs tend to have lower participation rates than programs which require fees from the housing complexes themselves. This is probably due to the transparent nature of tax based fees. When a service is included in the tax roll, all property owners pay whether they use the service or not. Paying a specific fee for recycling collection makes property managers more likely to push the program with their residents.

Fees can be assessed to individual dwellers, but that tends to be less cost effective than charging the complex a monthly fee based on number of units. A fee of as little as $2 per month per unit can support an MFD recycling program. Property managers may actually find that these fees cost less than not offering a recycling program. The more residents recycle, the less they dump in the trash. This means fewer weekly trash collections, lower volumes, and therefore lower disposal fees for the management company.

Mandatory Recycling?

Mandatory programs do produce increased collection volumes, but there is the issue of enforcement. When we think of mandatory recycling we usually think of regulating the activities of individuals. In an apartment complex enforcing recycling at the individual unit level would be extremely labor intensive, and may not even be logistically possible. A better answer is to make recycling participation mandatory for the complex.

Portland, Oregon, among others, has mandated that apartment complexes make recycling available. Note that this does not require residents to participate. But it addresses one of the primary concerns with non-particpation which is convenience. There mere fact that residents have a recycling option available to them on site will increase the likelihood that they will participate.

Other programs put the onus of enforcement on the complexes themselves. This requires complex managers to induce their tenants to recycle. The municipality may provide resources to enable them to do this, but the actual method of enforcement is up to the manager. The municipality is then left with ensuring that the apartment complex is recycling, rather than trying to enforce recycling among tens or hundreds of individual residents.

Single Stream Recycling

Implementing single stream recycling can address many of the issues that have been laid out in this article. Single stream has been shown to increase recycling volumes consistently by 20% or more where it has been implemented. It addresses the convenience factors associated with having to sort and separate recyclables, as well as the need to find storage space for multiple containers. In addition to making recycling more convenient for the participant, it makes it easier for the apartment complex and the hauler. The less separation required, the less space needed for multiple containers, and the less complex the hauling process. Simplifying also means reducing costs.

Contaminated material streams are a concern with single stream recycling, but waste continues to decline as the technology in the sorting systems improves. Where waste used to be on the order of 30% in a single stream Material Recovery Facility, ReCommunity reports that it’s new MRFs produce less than 15% waste, and the material streams are also cleaner so they bring higher dollars on the commodities market.

Will a Multi Family Dwelling Recycling Program work in my community?

An MFD recycling program can work in any community. How it is implemented and if the municipality can afford it are the key questions.

Public administrators looking to institute an MFD program should start by investigating what other communities have done and assessing if those techniques will work for them.  New York City, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, Maple Grove, Minnesota, Beaverton, Oregon and Ann Arbor, Michigan are just a few communities with successful MFD programs. Keep in mind that each community is its own culture, so other programs should be viewed as toolboxes. You may implement pieces from multiple communities to develop your own successful program.

Do your research. The US EPA and the National Recycling Coalition, as well as state recycling agencies, usually have resources that will help you to design a program. Interview private haulers and determine if they already have resources in place in your area. You may also wish to examine peer-reviewed research on the topic which can be accessed through your local library.

Before implementing any program it is wise to perform a community survey or hire a consultant to do a study. These studies can help you not only determine the demand for such services, but how to best provide them.

Residents who are interested in obtaining these services have a role to play as well. Many programs have started through grass-roots efforts which brought the issue to the fore front and exerted pressure on public officials to implement solutions. Particularly when talking about programs that will cost money to get off the ground and to maintain, public officials like to have a clear mandate from their constituency that this is something they want.

If you are an apartment dweller in an area with no MFD program, you can still do something. You can start a program in your complex by getting a cooperative of interested tenants together. You will want to work with the property manager but there are options to be had even if they mean privately hiring a recycling hauler to pick up at your location. If enough residents are interested and willing to fund the program, the manager may be willing to help set up a program. There are also options for partnerships with private haulers that require little or no funding from the property itself. Be creative.

Despite the challenges, public administrators need to make multi family recycling a priority. Even if the program comes at a cost, the long term benefits to the community and the environment as a whole should be considered before opting not to make the investment. 22% of the waste stream is a huge number.

Other resources

Multifamily Recycling: A Golden Opportunity for Solid Waste Reduction, US EPA report EPA530-F-99-010,

Multifamily Recycling: Barriers and Opportunities, State of Massachusetts,

Exploring Multifamily Apartment Recycling: Tools for the Voyage, Eureka! Recycling,


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