For some, it may seem that the state of recycling has reached a challenging fork in the road. But what can we learn from emerging success stories? Increasing complexity requires better communication — and complexity is required if recycling is to not just survive, but also thrive.

How Did We Get Here?

Survey the landscape of solid waste services from a few hundred miles up, and you might arrive at some odd conclusions about how we do things in North America. Curbside collection services happen every week, and in some cities not only are they every week, but they happen on the same day, year in and year out. As often as not, that schedule doesn’t respect national or local holidays — it’s a point of pride for many managers that the fleet is out there perhaps every working day of the year, as well as public holidays, and that you can know the day of the week by the streets where the trucks are found.

Does it have to be that way? 

Sure, we’re facing an unstoppable torrent of solid waste, which, if anything, only increases over the many holidays we devote to shopping. But is there something fundamental about the week that requires this infinite predictability?

It would be irrational to say that the requirements of providing trash collection service — however universal and far back these services might go — would determine a subdivision of time such as the week. So why are we, so often it seems, permanently coupled to it?

The underlying challenge that makes it so appealing to arrange services this way, of course, is the ability for people to know when a service will happen. For most people — those who don’t work in the industry – waste and waste diversion are unfortunately among the very last things they will think about.

So to avoid having to send the crews and their trucks back out over and over again, we K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple, Stupid) – really simple – arranging it around everything else that gets done in a week, and trying to make up for the lack of attention so that people don’t have to think about it at all.

If Everyone Does It This Way

The trouble is municipalities who stray from this, for example by observing holidays (pick a random number between none and all of them!) are faced with paying overtime to operational staff anyway, not to mention the potential cost and confusion of extra resident phone calls. So it might seem that there are huge operational costs in maintaining a system that requires minimal attention from residents to easily comply with guidelines, and that we’re just stuck with them.

I’m going to contend that delivery of these services is traditionally constrained mostly by the format of communications associated with those services. Residents need to understand what’s happening at a glance, while municipalities need to manage the cost of printing.

This is just an example (but not an atypical one) of the compromise that results:

Collection Calendar Confusion

Which looks simple enough, except that it’s only one half of the process, because it also requires the resident to determine where they are on a map (which is not exactly what maps are designed to do, particularly on the small screens of mobile devices). Even an apparently simple scheme really isn’t that simple from the traditional perspective of a service user.

So how do we reorient services around people in a way that isn’t going to break financial constraints?

Conserving Resources — A Way Forward

One small change by a mid-sized mid-western city recently marked a stroke of genius. By changing the name of routes by the day of the week to colors, they freed themselves from the obligation to operate with such metronomic regularity. 

Racine, WI had for years committed itself to a heroic pickup schedule that saw them doubling up on days after holidays. Upon transforming their schedule, they are forecast to save at least $100,000 by setting everyone back a day, instead.

Not surprisingly, we saw resident engagement on their digital communications tools move radically upward, more than quadrupling in a matter of months

Recycling Metrics

Opening up the schedule in such a way allows municipalities to optimize for other parameters — fleet capacity, labor availability, distance from transfer stations and maybe others. The logistics of how to most efficiently use these resources is a problem that has been solved for many times over — the remaining challenge for many is a matter of effective communications. 

Racine’s service change might seem like a radical move, but it’s the sort of thing that can become possible once a platform is in place to effectively communicate service changes. We’ve seen others leave behind the week entirely, decoupling streams and going bi-weekly where appropriate.

The reality is that the dynamics at play around recycling are constantly in flux, and service providers will always need to find ways to be responsive to such changes. We’ve not even begun to address how these challenges are amplified in cities faced with significant growth and redevelopment.

With seemingly permanently depressed pricing of recovered material, at the root of this may be the choice between greater complexity or in some way reduced service. Yet, it’s also true that waste reduction is entirely aligned at heart with fiscal responsibility and responsible use of resources.

And we are still very far from exhausting all possibilities to salvage the materials recovery industry. If we are to ask more from residents, there is more and more evidence to suggest we need to make the best possible use of available tools.

At ReCollect, my role is to develop a crystal clear understanding of what changes are anticipated, and of how those changes can become possible, or at least scalable and cost effective with a better communications technology toolbox. What we have learnt over the years is that while there may be a common set of challenges that transcend geography, it’s also true that no two municipalities are quite alike — and our tools have evolved to be highly configurable accordingly.

While the cost savings represented by effective communications tools might resemble capital expenditures — fleets of trucks and associated carts — the cost of those tools themselves are likely an order of magnitude lower, and it can be tempting to set them aside as an afterthought. This is a mistake — the most effective communications strategy allows for plenty of runway.

This part should not be left to the last minute, or an afterthought. It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to see that there is a dynamic of interplay between how we configure services and how we communicate about those services.

The Future: Intersection

What we’ve seen is that, equipped with the right tools, municipalities and other service providers are less constrained than received wisdom dictates. This is not about politics — fiscal responsibility, done right, also happens to look like saving the planet. It might also happen to save a lot of jobs.