Most of us know that our social values tend to be the forbearer of our behavior, and that waste reduction and recycling are usually categorized as "socially-motivated behaviors."
Last October, the Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority conducted a formal phone survey of businesses in their service area to find out more about recycling attitudes and behaviors. The results were intriguing.
The surveys were conducted throughout the waste authority's jurisdiction (Danville, Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda, Walnut Creek and surrounding unincorporated county areas) to support efforts to reduce waste and improve recycling in the future. As a part of that undertaking, 150 businesses were contacted to better understand attitudes and opinions about recycling in the workplace.
We were indeed pleased when 82 percent of the businesses reported they recycle. We were even more pleased because most responded that they recycle largely for altruistic reasons (e.g. good for the environment, the right thing to do, etc.).
What is puzzling however is that while 82 percent of businesses say they are recycling, the numbers don't quite add up.
The waste authority is responsible for tracking and reporting to the state of California volumes of materials being landfilled and recycled. While getting the data needed for these reports can be challenging, it is also important. The state uses the information to measure how well jurisdictions are managing their waste and whether they are complying with the current 50 percent landfill diversion requirement (that is, cities and counties must recycle half of their overall garbage stream).
The state's formulas for measuring garbage and recycling are complicated, and change from time-to-time. However, it is safe to say that, overall, the combined areas managed by the waste authority (listed above) diverted about 60 percent of their trash in 2011. The data shows that the lion's share what is being recycled is from single-family homes,; while only about 23 percent of trash generated by businesses is recycled. So, there seems to be a "disconnect" between what businesses say they're doing (recycling), and what is actually happening.
"Social bias" could be at play here. This is an occurrence in which people may say they are doing something if the action is considered socially desirable, such as recycling. An employee may actually believe they are doing an adequate job of recycling if they are taking their empty cans and bottles home, or are setting out their used cardboard, hoping someone will take it away. But one bottle or box does not a recycling program make. I am not suggesting that this is the case; in some instances, even though employees and management are diligent about separating their paper, cans, and cardboard from their trash, the materials all land in the garbage container. This could be due to lack of custodial training, motivation or similar circumstances.
So then, how do we ensure that businesses "walk their recycling talk?" Many experts agree that aside from increasing awareness, convenience is a key. It makes sense that if you are busy working at your desk, you are not likely to get up to recycle that single sheet of paper at a common recycling station. It's much more convenient to have a recycling container by your desk. Similarly, if the outdoor recycling receptacle is not adjacent to the garbage container, busy and tired custodians may put all the materials in the same place.
An additional insurance policy for effective business recycling is having an employee that takes on the role of "advocate" for the program, checking from time-to-time to confirm that recycling is occurring and being done correctly. This would probably be someone who has a high interest in the issue and wants to make sure recycling is maximized.
Lastly, it is important to note that the waste authority has a new "full service" Business Recycling Program designed to help busy employees or managers create a cost-effective and convenient program that works for their individual needs. For more information about our new program, please visit http://www.wastediversion.org/app_pages/view/29.
If you have a question, comment or idea about current or future solid waste programs, please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.