Consumer Education

As recycling programs have grown and flourished, we have seen the convenience of single stream recycling programs effectively drive increased participation, volume and landfill diversion rates.

The challenge this convenience brings, however, is increased contamination in the recycled waste stream. As packaging alternatives to tin, aluminum and glass have become more prevalent, consumers are often confused about the recycling acceptability of packaging, such as pouches and many plastic materials. When in doubt, about a quarter of consumers put the material in the recycling bin anyway. As a result, we must sort through a hodgepodge of items – plastic bags, garden hoses and propane tanks to name a few – at our recycling facilities. This is causing the industry to experience all-time-high contamination rates, which average 16 percent nationally at our single stream materials recovery facilities (MRFs).

To keep recycling viable, we are addressing contamination on both the national and local scale. Our strategy was developed by looking at every phase of our recycling business from operations and processing to customer education and outreach. The resulting Recycle Often. Recycle Right.® ( education and outreach program is a first for the industry and designed to be flexible, adaptable and customizable. The campaign takes a back-to-basics approach by focusing the messaging on three key behaviors:


Recycling empty bottles,
cans and paper


Keeping food and liquids
out of recycling


Keeping loose plastic bags
out of recycling

If residents simply follow these three rules, then we should see a dramatic decrease in contamination and increase in recycling volumes in our communities.

These simple messages have been incorporated into all educational materials to ensure a consistent message is communicated effectively to customers. A Recycle Often. Recycle Right.® microsite creates a single location for campaign materials and tools with a resource page to conveniently access and download the campaign. One in every five people who make the promise to Recycle Often. Recycle Right.® also interacts with the popular Recycling Myths feature, which allows site visitors to discover whether an item is recyclable in their curbside recycling and receive an expert tip for disposal. To drive website traffic, key Recycle Often. Recycle Right.® messages have been disseminated via our national social media platforms and executed in several cost-effective advertising campaigns.

Online tools have been complemented by enhanced training for our drivers so that our customer-facing employees are delivering the same campaign messaging in the field and developing a keener eye for spotting contamination. With technologies such as truck cameras and on-board computers, our drivers play a key role in enhancing our ability to provide and report customer behavior and feedback. This also gives our local districts the tools they need to address and educate customers about contamination at the curb.

In addition, we analyzed our contracts to find opportunities to improve programs with existing customers and negotiate the right terms in future contracts. In short, the Recycle Often. Recycle Right.® message has been integrated across all of our operations and customer touch points.

Measuring Impact

For lasting change to occur at the curb, ongoing measurement and management is critical. That’s why we’ve created and implemented an audit procedure for our recycling facilities that allows us to capture and compare data in order to measure improvements in our contamination rates. We also instituted a program to help our teams interpret and use this data in their day-to-day planning and operations, including targeting key contaminants identified in specific communities.

Piloting the Strategy

Collaboration with our customers was key to both deploying the Recycle Often. Recycle Right.® program and testing it in the marketplace. In 2015, we launched pilots of the campaign in three markets across the U.S. to measure actual changes in the recycling and contamination rates in communities after program implementation. In Elgin, Illinois, the city was eager to address a 40 percent contamination rate. We worked in partnership with our customer to engage as many stakeholders as possible, including several city staff, leaders and committees, as well as Waste Management drivers. Recycle Often. Recycle Right.® messaging was pushed across multiple communication channels, including a targeted cart-tagging program, the city’s recycling webpage, a video from the mayor, a 311 message and several community events. Current reporting shows that the pilot efforts in Elgin are working, with contamination rates decreasing by 10 to 20 percent.

Early test results with our municipal customers in pilot markets show that we are having an impact. Our learnings from these pilots will inform our strategy as we begin to implement similar efforts in our 1,200-plus communities across the country.