Carolina universities have thousands of recycling bins. They have instructional web pages and beautiful recycling guides. Some campuses even have on-site waste coordinators to make sure students are recycling right. On campus recycling rates are high.
Off campus, things are not as easy. Although universities supply information about local regulations, students still struggle to keep up with the day-to-day habits of recycling properly. North and South Carolina share between them approximately half a million enrolled university students. With five universities including the University of Carolina, students account for a big share of Columbia, SC’s local residents. These students create waste, and lots of it.
Although the City of Columbia’s recycling rate has recently increased by an impressive 38 percent, there are some last bastions of recycling laggards. The off-campus student population is particularly tough. Of the groups who typically recycle less carefully, students are by far the most difficult to change. They’re pre-occupied, stressed about academics, and, perhaps most importantly, are an ever-churning demographic. To get the message across, it was extra important to create a sustainable system of ongoing communication with students as they came and went with their enrolment and graduation.
Solution: A Full Media Approach
The City used a new cart program to reimagine the way they communicated with residents. According to Sam Yager, the Solid Waste Assistant Superintendent for Columbia, “we knew we had to start communicating the way our residents communicate, and we knew traditional media was not the sole solution.” There needed to be a well-developed, branded message delivered via traditional media and new media, combined.
Students do not want to pick up the phone and call – they want to receive information the way they receive everything else – via apps, the internet, or instant messaging.
“So,” Sam said, “we started using an app that helps the City of Columbia communicate with residents in all the ways they want to communicate – and on their terms. This was revolutionary to the way we interacted with students.”
“With the app, the resource is right there. These days, we feel like our phone is almost an extension of ourselves. We are used to inquiring with it, constantly trying to learn more. Our app now allows for that, allowing residents to receive notification about recycling and waste days, and interacting with easy tools to find information about products, places and services available to them.”
This was helpful for Sam, and for residents. It’s not always easy to know what is recyclable. The app allows for two different ways to find that out. First, the “waste wizard” lets you look up anything to see where to put it. And secondly (and Sam’s favorite), you can send little reminders with education information. The city is able to target specific materials in their messaging. For example, they knew they would see a rise in cardboard during move-in and move-out in the student rentals areas, so they sent a message reminding everyone to make sure cardboard is clean and flat for proper collection.
After launching the app in July, the City of Columbia saw steady growth in the number of app users. The initial cart launch helped with immediate results, but they knew they had to keep working at promoting the app. To ensure residents and students were consistently reminded of the free app, they made sure it was included on every marketing piece they used. They have it on our ‘oops’ tags, newspaper ads, vehicle wraps, brochures, social media, newsletters, and website.
The proof is in the numbers. They started with 2,138 users in January 2016. A year later and they had more than doubled that number. “People love the app” says Sam, “and it’s a key to success in Columbia’s recycling rates.”
The City of Columbia’s efforts to improve off-campus student recycling have been successful. So successful, in fact, that they recently received an award for from to Carolina Recycling Association for their approach.
Sam Yager, who received the award on behalf of the city, has this to say about the honor:
“We are so humbled and excited to be recognized by the Carolina Recycling Association. The Solid Waste Division takes great pride in having a clean, vibrant city. It takes great neighbors to help us. University students help make the fabric of our neighborhoods so unique. Having the ReCollect app makes being a good neighbor and recycler SO easy!”
Congratulations to Columbia, and to Sam, from all of us at ReCollect!