The recycling industry is undergoing a period of flux. Contamination concerns and loss or reduction of markets are taking a center stage, leading many cities to reconfigure the materials accepted in their curbside programs.
With those changes come consumer confusion, and communities fighting to save their programs have accordingly implemented educational initiatives around proper recycling — including one campaign launched last week in Michigan.
The new "Know It Before You Throw It" campaign from Michigan's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) aims to educate citizens throughout Michigan on proper recycling. It's Michigan's first statewide campaign — a unique approach, considering recycling education campaigns generally target just one city or metro area.
"We thought it best to have a cohesive approach to inspire collective action statewide," Jill Greenburg, public information officer for EGLE, told Waste Dive.
A person living mid-state, she explained, could end up watching the same commercial as a friend or family member living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula — creating a crucial sense of connection.
"We wanted the campaign to feel inviting, to create collaborations and partnerships between municipalities and the state," Greenburg said. "We want people to feel like they're taking part in something bigger."
The initiative emphasizes that only clean, dry material should enter recycling bins. It also prompts residents to review the exact materials accepted in their local jurisdictions. Pizza boxes and plastic bags, for example, are accepted curbside in some parts of the state but not in others.
"Statewide, we're inspiring people to get involved in cleaner recycling, but we really can't be successful unless they get involved on the local level," Greenburg said.
EGLE's campaign is also gaining attention for its nontraditional marketing approach. While many recycling programs employ serious messaging techniques, EGLE's weaves in a strong element of humor.
The television and online commercials feature the Michigan Recycling Raccoon Squad, a six-member animal team that conveys recycling specifics in simple terms. Each of the six squad members specializes in one recycling stream: glass, paper, plastic, cardboard, metal and "other."
"We decided to use a little levity in this because we wanted to take a big chance," said Greenburg. "We didn't want residents to feel we were requiring them to recycle. We wanted them to be inspired to take part in something that benefits our state and environment.
According to the squad's website, raccoons — animals notorious for rifling through dumpsters and trash bins — "know garbage."
"Trust us, we know what you should be throwing out and what you should be recycling," the website assures residents. "It's in our DNA."
"It's simple and to the point," Kerrin O'Brien, Michigan Recycling Coalition (MRC) executive director, told Waste Dive. "It maybe gets to an audience that we haven't been successful in getting to before."
MRC, a member association, has a statewide Recycle Michigan campaign — but it "doesn't have these kinds of characters that are trying to deliver a message," O'Brien noted.
"I hope these two campaigns end up being complementary, because I do think it's kind of eye-catching to see what the raccoons are talking about," she said.
The state's goal is to double its current 15% annual recycling rate to 30% by 2025, eventually reaching 45%. The clean recycling campaign improves the chances of doing that, Greenburg said.
State legislators recently gave recycling a huge boost when, in an unprecedented move, they increased recycling-centric funding from $2 million last year to $15 million this year. The new clean recycling campaign will likely be part of a bigger push for recycling education in the coming months.
"I hope EGLE commits to expanding and broadening the messages used in this campaign ... [and] these raccoons prove to be a good vehicle to deliver deeper messages," O'Brien said. "People are hungry to understand why things are how they are, and they make assumptions. If we can help people make the correct assumptions, it changes behaviors for the long term."