I think that tracking and monitoring is one of the most important and sometimes-overlooked part of a successful recycling program. Tracking takes a little bit of effort, but I think the results are well worth it. You need data to show the impacts of your program. You want to be able to say, I did this and look at the results (either in terms of increased recycling or decreased trash). If you don’t have that data, you don’t really have a way to show whether or not something that you tried worked and whether or not your efforts are worthwhile.
For me, there are two types of tracking:
- Total campus tracking, and
- Building-by-building tracking.
I talked about total campus tracking in part 1 of this series. In this part 2, I am going to discuss building-to-building tracking (you could even drill down to floor-to-floor or department-to-department if so inclined). I think this type of monitoring is critical in order to see where your system is working and where it is breaking down.
Building-to-building monitoring works best in areas where you have “like” populations and where you have folks that have some control over their waste decisions. For example, this works really well in residence halls. It does not work so well comparing something like the bursars office to the library – because the vast majority of the differences between those two areas are dictated more by office function and type of waste generated than personal action. You could compare one of those areas against itself over time (e.g. this year, the library recycled “Y” amount of stuff whereas last year, it only recycled “X” amount of stuff), but inter-area comparisons usually don’t tell you much.
Building by building tracking is typically done by volume. It’s tough to get accurate weights for individual collection containers because you don’t typically have a scale handy at each building. Some trucks have the ability to weigh containers as they dump them, but I have heard too many cases of significant problems with the accuracy of such scales to recommend them. However, as long as you keep your collection container uniform (say a 65 gallon Toter cart or a 40-gallon Rubbermaid Brute), you can have staff track how full those carts are when they pick them up (I usually ask folks to trash by 1/4s, 1/4 full, 1/2 full, 3/4 full, etc.). That will give you a pretty good comparison point for inter-building monitoring and tracking. If you have relatively fixed populations and known populations (i.e. residence halls) you can turn those volumes into pretty good per-capita numbers.
No matter how good you think your system or infrastructure is, there are places on campus where it works better than others. Building by building monitoring can help you figure out where and why. If you do these sorts of comparisons long enough, I actually think you should get an honorary degree in human behavior because the reasons for the discrepancies are varied and often amazing. In general though, there are two categories that you can group the variations into. One is staff and logistics variations. The other is variations among the waste generators.
Using per building monitoring, you can often tell the difference between buildings in which collection staff are proactive and helping, and those in which they are doing things that undermine your program. It is typically only a few rare cases in which someone is deliberately undermining your program. More often than not, the differences are more subtle and how folks deal with contamination and storage issues. Some staff will use even the slightest excuse to dump a slightly contaminated bin as trash, especially if they perceive the trash collection to be more effective than the recycling. From my perspective, I think that is evidence of the need to fix that discrepancy so that recycling is just as effective as trash pickup and there is no incentive to throw stuff into the trash. Regardless of your resolution to the problem, having these monitoring data points really helps to pinpoint where the issues are.
The other big variation that you see is on the waste-generator site of things. If we are talking about residence halls, we are talking about variations in student behavior. And in 20 years of doing this in residence halls, I have found more variations than you could ever imagine. Tracking and monitoring will let you see where those variations are occurring.
One of the things that you may quickly find with building by building monitoring is how easy your recycling bins are to find. Do you have residence halls in which your recycling rate drops significantly compared to its peers in September when the students move in and in May when they move out? Go back and take a look at how easy your recycling site is to find. Put yourself in the shoes of a new student, or the friend or family member who is helping your student to move in or move out (the folks who often end up with the job of taking stuff down to the recycling bins). Pretend you don’t know anything about the building you are in. Can you find the recycling site? Are there signs to guide you to it? If it’s in a special recycling room behind a closed door, is there a sign on the door of that room that tells you what the room is?
Some of you who have read one of my previous posts or seen one of my presentations have heard about my insistence on parallel access (having trash and recycling containers located in the same area – visibly different from one another but in the same area). Some of my earliest discoveries of parallel access were forged out of one of these monitoring-related discoveries. We had a residence hall where the monitoring was showing we just weren’t getting enough paper, compared to the other halls. Something was wrong. As I started going back to the bins, I made a vile discovery. We were throwing away most of our barrels of paper because students were throwing up into them. It was a party dorm, so much so that we had students getting sick fairly often, and so drunk that they couldn’t make it down the hall to the bathroom. To their credit, the students knew they didn’t want to vomit on the carpeted floor so they were looking for the first trash can they could find. In their travels, they came upon the recycling room, which had a nice big recycling barrel in it (several of them actually), but no trash can. The trash room at the time was way on the other end of the hallway. As a result, my paper bin became their personal vomitorium. Whenever you think you are having a bad Monday, imagine opening a bin from which you are expecting just to be fishing out a few extra inappropriately-placed pizza boxes, and encountering that. Routinely. In a somewhat desperate attempt to stop the issue, I started placing a wastebasket in the recycling room. The results, from a recycling perspective were amazing. I don’t think we ever had another contaminated bin again (except for the time someone emptied the wastebasket and forgot to put it back). Once I’d made that discovery, I started going back to the route sheets and discovered pretty uniformly that in sites where we had parallel access, we had significantly higher recycling than in sites where the trash and recycling were separated. There were a few sites in which that wasn’t the case, but upon further investigation, I found that in most of those anomalous sites, we did have the same issue. However, in those buildings, we had a few staff that were going above and beyond and removing the contamination themselves.
I’d add something pithy about necessity being the mother of invention, but honestly, I think I’ve spent too much time on this vile little flashback. Just remember that other trash may be less foul, but if you don’t have a trash bin to put it in, that trash will end up contaminating your recycling. And a system of building-by-building monitoring can help you discover where that is occurring.
Many of the system breakdowns that you see with monitoring are significantly less gross, but no less important. Sometimes it’s genuine confusion about what can and cannot be recycled. Knowing that allows you to augment or fix your existing signs and labels. Sometimes it’s a student coming from a culture that does not recycle, so a lot of extra education is needed. When you know that, you can resolve that issue. Sometimes it is a case where you just have the wrong bins. I have had buildings where students were partying and when the recycling bin first fills up, all the extras go into the trash. Knowing that allows you to add a larger recycling bin and solve the issue. All of them are solvable issues. But first, you have to know where the problems are. And building-by-building monitoring lets you figure that out.