- The population of the United States is growing more diverse, but recycling programs and related community outreach and educational programs are often missing equity considerations across communities. A new guide from The Recycling Partnership aims to help program coordinators improve recycling outreach to better connect with diverse communities where they work.
- The Guide to Creating More Equitable Recycling Outreach includes data on barriers to participating in recycling, but also urges program coordinators to think outside the box by offering tips on how to better connect with communities, avoid implicit biases, and develop long-term plans for public engagement.
- The guide is a starting point, but isn’t meant to be a comprehensive resource because “significant and meaningful” outreach takes time, requires frequent engagement and involves getting community members involved in the process, it says. “There are no one-size-fits-all solutions in recycling outreach.”
Recycling program leaders can feel lost when it comes to outreach because the factors that motivate or prevent communities from recycling vary significantly across ages, regions, race and ethnicity, the TRP guide says.
Equity initiatives won’t be effective if these community-specific characteristics, such as culture, language and race, aren’t taken into account. “Recycling is a social issue,” said Elizabeth Schussler, senior director of TRP’s Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact.
Recycling outreach programs often involve data collection on metrics like participation rates, but there aren’t always straightforward ways to collect information on the more complex barriers to participation, she added.
“If you look at participation rates or capture rates, what you don't see is who can't read the information that you're giving them [because they don’t speak the language.] You don’t see data on who is not participating because they don’t feel like they are part of the community. You might not see that someone is recycling the way they were taught in another community and haven’t picked up on local guidelines yet,” she said.
TRP’s guide includes results from a recycling barrier survey TRP conducted, which shows that most respondents believe recycling is a positive action to take but have nuanced reasons for what prevents them from participating.
White respondents reported few barriers to recycling, but respondents identified in the survey as Black or Hispanics/Latinos, aged 18-44, were more likely than others to feel “additional barriers and frustrations” related to recycling. That could include factors like costs associated with recycling, such as paying for services, or social pressures such as not seeing others recycle. One in five Hispanic/Latino respondents and those under the age of 45 “feel their neighbors or community would laugh at or judge them for recycling.”
Asian and Pacific Islander respondents reported experiencing many of these barriers, “but to a lesser degree,” the report stated.
The report points out that availability of recycling programs is an ongoing barrier, too.
Communities with a majority Black population are 50% less likely than the rest of the country to have automatic curbside collection. They are also 50% less likely to have any kind of recycling program, according to data from TRP’s National Recycling Database, a dataset of recycling programs in communities over 2,500 people.
Recycling program coordinators who want to make their outreach more equitable face challenges, too, Schussler said. That’s because they’re sometimes working within a structure that’s slow to change or doesn’t have the staffing or resources for more complex outreach, such as appropriate translation services or trusted connections with affected communities.
“Often you see challenges with outreach because a [program] has something like a billboard or an app or mailer, and it got approved last year, so it will be approved again this year,” she said. “It can be tough to try something different.”
Successful outreach programs that prioritize equity must recognize that different parts of a community may need different recycling solutions, she said. “Equity isn’t giving everyone in town the exact same resources,” she said.
But those programs might be more expensive, take longer to launch and require the help of community organizations and residents. Those complexities can make such programs a harder sell for municipalities or organizations that must operate within certain budget or grant requirement constraints.
“It takes buy-in from leadership to prioritize this and do things a little differently,” she said. Municipalities and states that understand such challenges “can get past that surface-level understanding of what people need.”