Recycling Education: Informed citizenry is key to a successful program
(from Maine Townsman, May 1995)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

Whether it's developing a brochure explaining just why it is important to take the cap off the plastic milk jug when you prepare it for recycling (the cap is made of a different kind of plastic that, if included, could ruin the batch) ...

Or, conducting how-to classes demonstrating the correct way to compost food waste in your backyard (a balance of "browns" and "greens" is necessary for a good hot pile) ...

Local government is moving headlong into the business of public education.

For as their recycling programs mature and they seek to increase their recycling rates, public works departments and regional recycling centers are coming to the realization that it takes more than the presence of balers and curbside pickups, and a list of what the community is recycling to change the throwaway habits of their citizens.

They have come to understand that education is an important, if not critical, component of their recycling programs. But education is not a traditional role of local government -- the school department, yes, but the public works department, no.

In an attempt to develop guidelines for what makes an effective municipal recycling education program, this article looks at the different approaches that are currently being practiced around the state.

In doing so, the article tries to tease out of it all what makes for effective education and to dispel the idea that such education is expensive. It also looks at some of the educational resources currently available to municipalities.


"Surveys are an important tool in keeping up the two-way conversation that is critical to a successful recycling program," says Tony Hayes, the Public Works Director in Falmouth.

As Hayes sees it, surveys are used to understand your community's practices and opinions, to find out who your audience is and what it thinks about what you are doing.

Are the majority of your residents already composting in their backyards? If so, then there is no need for you to offer them a workshop in composting. Given a choice of three options for collecting solid waste, which would they prefer? Having instituted a new collection program, how is it going? What needs to be fine-tuned?

Before Falmouth switched from a flat fee to a fee-per-bag program, it paid $75 to the local weekly newspaper to insert a 4-page, 14-question survey into the newspaper. The survey explained the three options under consideration. Complete with advantages, disadvantages and costs, it asked residents which option they preferred and why.

Then, to find out how the new fee-per-bag system was working, Falmouth conducted a 6-question survey. This time, the survey was conducted on the phone over a period of three days, reaching 350 households (12 percent of the population), using high school students who were required to perform so many hours of community service. The telephone company donated the use of the phones and office space.

"The residents really appreciated the fact that we were not using professional pollsters," notes Hayes.


Finding out what the community does and thinks about recycling is just one side of the dialogue; providing them with feedback on how things are going from the municipality's perspective is the other. It's called feedback and it's also critical.

Municipal newsletters are often used for this purpose. While a growing number of municipalities are publishing "recycling newsletters," some argue that the most effective medium is not a single issue newsletter but a general newsletter, with a portion devoted to recycling.

Falmouth's Hayes uses both the town report and an annual 6-page municipal newsletter, the Falmouth Focus, to keep residents informed. (Recycling contributes to about one-third of the copy in the newsletter)

In the summer of 1993 issue of the newsletter, Hayes reported to residents that the cost of disposing waste had dropped from $116,000 to $80,000 as a result of instituting the fee-per-bag system.

In Falmouth's 1994 Annual Report, he not only described the highlights of the year in the recycling and solid waste program, he also included a bar graph to show the progress the town had made in recycling over the past four years. (As a result of the town adopting a fee-per-bag program, the tons recycled had risen from 200 to 650, while the tons of solid waste collected had dropped from 3,030 to1,860.)

Tonnage drops and disposal savings aside, one of the hot items for feedback these days is the income generated by the sale of recyclables.

It would be an understatement to note that the market is strong, especially when it comes to paper products. Last June, newspaper was bringing $15 to $30 a ton; today it is bringing $105 to $110 a ton. Magazines that were bringing in $15 to $25 a ton a year ago are now bringing in $100 a ton.

Municipalities are using this to tout the success of their programs, noting the revenues they are reaping from the sale of their recyclables. And well they should. Bar Harbor recently reported it would earn $5,000 in revenues in 1995, while the Lincoln County Recycling program, reported back in September, had earned more than $100,000 to date.

But Jody Harris of the Maine Waste Management Agency offers a note of caution in this arena, pointing out that the markets are not stable; in fact she is already seeing a turnaround. As such, Harris cautions municipalities not to look to recycling as a revenue source but rather as a waste management tool.


Annual reports and municipal newsletters aside, the Northern Oxford Regional Recycling Center, believing that it is important to "keep the issue in people's faces," has gone one step further: its recycling coordinator, Patricia Duguay, a former newspaper reporter, writes a weekly column for two local newspapers.

"Waste Time with Patty" appears in the Rumford Falls Times. Duguay describes it as a kind of "Dear Abby" column, where she records unusual recycling questions she has heard around town the previous week and attempts to come up with an answer. Like what to do with cooking oils? She suggests putting them in a container that cannot be recycled.

The second column, "Topic Waste," appears weekly in the Lewiston Sun-Journal and is less how-to and more issue-oriented; some of the columns are downright philosophical. But the style of writing is always chatty, always conversational, says Duguay.

For example, when trying to explain why caps on milk jugs should be removed, Duguay says she will call up the image of a white load of wash with a red sock. Or when trying to explain that all plastic isn't the same, she will note that muffin mixes aren't the same as cake mixes.

In addition to her columns, Duguay says the newspapers will include other material as well because she does a lot of the legwork, taking her own pictures, writing the stories, or if need be driving the local correspondents to the event. "I make it easy for them," she says.

Duguay says she relies on the free space provided by the newspapers because newsletters would be too expensive. The Northern Oxford Regional Recycling Center serves six towns (Rumford, Mexico, Dixfield, Peru, Byron and Roxbury) with a total population of 15,000.

Newspapers aside, Duguay is currently working on a project that can't help keep the message in the forefront: a recycling calendar that would include how-to information on the top half, like how-to set up a composter, and critical collection dates on the bottom half.


People want to know "why," say all those contacted for this article. It's no longer enough to list "what" you recycle, "how" to prepare it, and "where" to bring it.

It's important to explain "why" we want them to take the caps off the milk jugs (they are made of a different kind of plastic and therefore must be removed before they are baled; if you don't do it, we will have to, because if we don't, we can't sell it to the end users).

If you can explain the why's, say those who do, you will get a higher level of participation in your recycling program.

There is also a thirst to know what the recycled products are made into, says Kathy Guerin, the director of the Maine Resource Recovery Association's Marketing Cooperative. As such, Guerin is in the process of developing an educational kit that will have samples of the products made from recycled materials, like the plastic wood that is made from milk containers into park benches, docks, soft drink bottle bases, flower pots, laundry detergent bottles, combs, traffic cones, pails, and the list goes on.

What it all boils down to is providing a comprehensive picture of the entire process, says Duguay, from start to finish.


Newsletters, brochures, posters. If you are going to produce them, pay careful attention to the readability of the copy, the use of color, the use of artwork, the quality of the paper, say those who do. In other words, produce professional material.

When the Northern Maine Solid Waste Management Association, which encompasses all municipalities in Aroostook County from Island Falls to the Allagash, got together last year to collaborate on offering compost workshops throughout the county, they turned to the Northern Maine Development Commission to prepare the necessary educational materials.

Commission staff members, planner Linda Berube and graphic artist Tim Finnemore, who worked on the materials, offer the following suggestions:

Remember, the medium is as important as the message.


Sponsors aside, another way of reducing your costs and getting your message out is to join with other groups in your community or in your region.

In Bangor, the public works department has joined forces with "Bangor Beautiful," the local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful. The five-year-old organization, which has its offices in the city's Public Works building, produces the city's quarterly recycling newsletter, the Recycling Bin, at no cost to the city. "Bangor Beautiful" is a volunteer organization which raises monies from the garden show it sponsors annually.

On a regional level, the Northern Maine Solid Waste Management Association (see above) in conjunction with the Northern Maine Development Commission pooled its resources to launch a county-wide composting education program which it called "Project Compost" that resulted in 30, two-hour composting workshops attended by nearly 1,400 people throughout Aroostook County.

By pooling their resources together they were able to make volume purchases of composting bins that they offered for $9.50 to those attending the workshop; the bins retail for $100.

In the works, on a regional level, the Northern Oxford Regional Recycling Center is working with eight other recycling centers from Rangeley to Lisbon to produce a 12-page recycling "reference tabloid" that will be published by the Lewiston Sun-Journal. They are seeking $4,000 in commitments from advertisers in the solid waste and recycling business to pay for the publication.


"Hook up with a teacher in your school system and work together to make your school a model for recycling in the community," says Don Hudson. As Hudson sees it, the energy and enthusiasm of young people will bring home the message to the adults (mothers and fathers) in your community.

Hudson ought to know. He is the executive director of the Chewonki Foundation, a non-profit educational institution in Wiscasset, which has recently developed and published a curriculum guide (see below) for Maine schools exploring waste management issues that has become a national model.

The curriculum that developed under a grant Chewonki received from the Maine Waste Management Agency a few years ago, has students working actively on projects outside the school in the community and in their homes. Hudson says that municipalities should take advantage of this feature of the curriculum that is now being introduced to schools across the state.

At the heart of the curriculum is the principle that people learn better, that they have a better grasp of concepts, when they "do something" or have a "hands-on" experience.

As such, one activity suggested in the curriculum guide has students and teachers building and managing a compost pile to process food wastes from their school cafeteria, with the finished compost used for school and home plantings. Another has students not only doing a home waste audit but actually constructing a collection center for recyclables in their home.


The personal is a powerful educational tool, say public officials in Wells, where the recycling rate is 50 percent!

When the town started up its recycling program four years ago, it looked for a way to introduce the hows and whys of it all to its residents and came up with a ten-minute video, produced at no cost to the town by the local cable company.

The video opens with two of Wells' residents chatting in a kitchen, swapping stories about how they recycle in their homes. It then moves to the town's transfer station, where the women chat with the attendant, who explains in detail the hows and the whys of the system.

While Wells' system has changed considerably since then and the video is history, it was an important and successful tool at the time, says Edgar More, who oversees the transfer station.

As demonstrated in the video, More stresses the importance of one-on-one education. Brochures aside, it is the conversation between the attendant on duty and the resident dropping off their waste and recyclables at a transfer station that is the most powerful educational tool for those municipalities that do not have curbside pickup, says More.


As noted above the curriculum developed by the Chewonki Foundation in Wiscasset has gained national recognition. Entitled Pathways to a Sustainable Future: A Curriculum Guide for Maine Schools Exploring Maine Waste Management Issues, it can also serve as an excellent resource for municipal recycling programs.

The background information contained in its 250 pages could be incorporated into newsletters and brochures published by public works departments and regional recycling centers. The hands-on projects designed for students are also appropriate for adults.

There are chapters devoted to publicizing your recycling programs. There are other chapters on conducting waste audits in the home as well as chapters on how to conduct consumer surveys and score them.

Twelve hundred (1,200) copies of this book are currently in circulation throughout Maine. One reportedly resides in every public library in Maine. Hudson says, while the material is copyrighted, a call to the Chewonki Foundation (207) 882-7323 would enable a municipality to reproduce the materials.