Recycling in the Multi-Residential (MR) sector: three opportunities to improve performance

Multi Residential (MR) recycling performance lags behind curbside for two, nearly universal reasons: a smaller quantity of material is captured, and its quality is compromised by high levels of unwanted items such as food waste and textiles.

When faced with challenging and complicated problems such as these, behaviour change researchers Dan and Chip Heath advise that we should focus energy on finding and studying the bright spots (successes) of any activity despite how small or incremental. They argue that focusing discussions on what’s going wrong and what’s not working will not lead to change. On the contrary it is only when replicating and growing the bright spots that progress becomes much more likely.

The City of Toronto’s report on CIF project 979 shines a light on small MR wins to focus on going forward.

Bright Spots from Toronto

The City of Toronto project team tested a number of communication and engagement tactics in a group of multi-residential buildings to determine a set of verified better practices for MR resident engagement.

Direct Mail – click image to enlarge

The Toronto study was robust. It included:

  • discussions with residents through a focus group,
  • redesign of promotion and education (P&E) materials,
  • distribution of the new materials over a 6-month period,
  • community based social marketing efforts,
  • surveying of residents to determine whether they received the communications, and
  • pre and post waste audits to determine whether there was a change in the recycling set out

In this study, Toronto staff set out to determine how best to communicate with residents.

Tear Pad – click image to enlarge

From this we learned:

  • Posters with tear away info works better than direct mail, and
  • Lobby activities delivered by community representative garner a higher level of interest from residents than those staffed by municipal employees.

Perhaps most important were these key insights:

1. Ongoing communication is critical

The impact of communication materials drops off quickly after the tactic has been deployed. Residents are environmentally motivated and look for recycling information from the City and their building operators. To improve awareness and the resident’s level of recall of what is and is not part of their recycling program, campaigns need to be longer in duration and with greater messaging frequency. Efforts should be ongoing, ideally without end, and municipal waste diversion budgets should allow for this.

2. Waste and diversion service agreement changes are needed

Residents prefer their recycling information to come from their building superintendent or their municipality. Simple efforts such as putting up posters elicited a higher level of recall from residents than information mailed directly to them.

It’s important to be able to rely on building site operators to be maintain or refresh posters in public spaces. Logistically and from a budgetary point of view, it makes more sense that the building staff, already on the premises, carry out this function.

Changes are needed to the waste and diversion service agreements between building owners and the municipality. Building management needs to take a higher level of responsibility to correct contamination problems their residents create, in the same way curbside owners are expected to correct their recycling bin set outs. Distributing P&E materials inside MR buildings is one way property owners can assist.

3. Convenience and quality of recycling experience matters

In most MR buildings, recycling is still less convenient than garbage disposal, and this is a big barrier because it reduces the incentive to recycle. This project demonstrated that in buildings where ease of access to garbage programs was equitable to waste diversion programs, recycling program performance was better.

Waste audits appear to indicate that condos performed better than rental buildings when it came to diversion. This finding was consistent with the qualitative surveys which indicated that owners (condo) are generally more satisfied with their building facilities than renters, and it seems logical that this satisfaction would impact diversion performance. Both the focus group research as well as information gathered during lobby displays indicate that residents want convenience when it comes to recycling.  Often recycling is more convenient in condominiums because of building set-up or staffing resources.

These were but a few of the findings from the Toronto study. To participate in the MR working group’s full cost accounting research, please contact Jessica Landry.