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Harmonized Recycling

by Jill Martin, Recycling Today

Simplified communication decreases contamination and confusion among residents while increasing the capture rate for curbside recyclables.

Imagine trying to take a train, subway or bus system across a city where the signage, names and colors of the routes are inconsistent. It would be difficult. But that’s how many communities approach recycling education.

Random instructions here and there won’t result in consistent behavior among residents. Instead, municipal recycling programs must offer harmonized and simplified communication across the board to be assured of consistent outcomes.

Harmonizing means bringing into consonance or accord. In municipal recycling, it means material recovery facilities (MRFs) and other stakeholders work together to provide clear, consistent messaging that can effectively change residents’ recycling behaviors.

Get synchronized

Recycling messages need to be the same at work, home and play, regardless of political or geographic boundaries.

When MRF operators and other stakeholders work together to create educational messaging about recycling that is synchronized across these areas, beautiful things happen: Contamination is reduced and the capture rate increases. But having synchronized messaging doesn’t necessarily mean that all stakeholders must have identical educational approaches or perfectly matching “acceptable materials” lists; that’s not practical. Rather, all stakeholders should collaborate to keep their messages coordinated.


One example of harmonized messaging is offering a singular message that’s presented in a variety of ways. For instance, multiple media could be used to deliver the message that plastic bags aren’t acceptable in the recycling stream, be it through videos, infographics or blogs. Another example of harmonized messaging is having a variety of messages presented in a singular way, such as using one video series to highlight all the items that aren’t acceptable in a recycling stream.

In both examples, the secret to success is following a predictable pattern so viewers begin to recognize the overarching recycling message and remember it.

Easy as 1-2-3

Across the United States, many MRF operators and the municipalities they serve are collaborating on recycling education by attending workshops on delivering more consistent messaging.

The following three steps can help guide MRFs and municipal recycling stakeholders in harmonizing their messages to ensure they are clear and concise.

Step 1: Harmonization begins with a variety of people, generally recycling program managers and educational staff from communities throughout the same MRFshed, who are willing to design and develop a synchronized recycling message. (The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, defines a MRFshed as a group of communities that funnel material into the same MRF). Joining forces as a group allows programs to leverage dollars and reach, which will help to spread the message to a larger audience.

Step 2: After the stakeholders have been identified, the next step is to invite them to visit the local MRF. This will allow everyone involved to see what material is acceptable and enable them to identify the top contaminants that are in the recycling stream.

This second step isn’t intended to supersede existing agreements. Instead, it should be used to refocus messaging on the most detrimental materials. This is not the forum to determine what materials should be “in” or “out” of the recycling stream. This is the start of a long-term strategy to align communities in their messaging.

Often, a community’s list of acceptable materials is outdated. For instance, if millennial residents see that “phone books” are acceptable in the recycling stream, they might be unsure of what that means. It might be time to update that item—and others—on the acceptable list.


If a community is strapped for educational funds or is looking for graphics ideas, The Recycling Partnership has a Campaign-Builder tool that includes words, icons and pictures for messaging. It’s a good plug-and-play tool. For more details, visit https://recyclingpartnership.org/pdf-builder-login.

Conflicting messages also are problematic. For example, a county might communicate that “no pizza boxes” are allowed in the recycling stream, while a city in that same county includes pizza boxes on its acceptable list. Then, the community’s MRF operator might add that pizza boxes are a concern, but plastic bags are an even bigger concern. These three parties involved in the same recycling system have conflicting messages on what to do with pizza boxes. If these communities teamed up to create a single message, it would be much more concise and heard by a wider audience.

Many other examples of contradictory messaging can be seen in municipal recycling programs, such as disagreements on which plastics are recyclable. The Recycling Partnership offers a “MRFshed Report,” available at https://recyclingpartnership.org/mrfshed-report, that examines specific details on this topic.

© The Recycling Partnership

Step 3: Design your educational pieces, understanding that a few differences in the programs are acceptable. This idea is known as “modular messaging,” producing the same style message with slightly different content. Modular messaging can be used in neighboring communities that take material to one MRF or even in statewide recycling programs with multiple MRFs.

Recycling isn’t identical in neighboring communities, cities or counties. One community might have a hefty education budget that includes hiring a public relations firm to design educational pieces, while another community might have a program that is strapped for every dollar. Regardless of the size of the community’s recycling education budget, the concept is the same: Keep it simple and keep it consistent.

Harmonizing in action

Communities, cities, counties and states across the U.S. have applied the above three steps to harmonize their recycling messaging to residents.

Last year, a few rural communities in Tennessee came together to ensure their municipal recycling stakeholders sang the same tune about their MRFs and drop-off programs. The education offered the same look and feel with slight variations, depending on the community where it was distributed.

In this example, a postcard was designed for each community, informing residents and businesses of the recycling program and what is and isn’t acceptable. Each community used the same language, look and feel for the postcards, but there were nuances. In Cumberland, Tennessee, the postcards noted that cans, cartons, paper, glass and plastic were acceptable for recycling. In Knoxville and Marshall, Tennessee, the postcards noted that their communities do not accept glass for recycling. Also, consistent signage was used at the drop-off sites in rural Tennessee.

These communities took a statewide approach to sharing a harmonized message on recycling. In 2019, they are planning to release a new media campaign to help brand the state’s message on recycling.

Regarding the state’s recycling communication efforts, Larry Christley, materials management program manager for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, says, “Tennessee is a popular destination for tourism and a place for people to call home. Because of this, a consistent message on how or what to recycle is very important to help eliminate contamination—a simple clear message that all can understand and remember.”

South of Tennessee, various Florida- based stakeholders—the city of Tampa, Hillsborough County, Pinellas County and the city of St. Petersburg—partnered to orchestrate a unified recycling education campaign around plastic bags.

At the 2018 Resource Recycling Conference in St. Louis, Alita Kane, the recycling coordinator for the city of Tampa, said, “The missing link was that while we all had strong recycling outreach programs, they were not necessarily consistent and concise across the region.”

Kane added that it was apparent that the stakeholders involved all needed new recycling education approaches.

These communities did that by developing a regional message to reduce recycling contamination with the primary goal to make it easier to understand recycling rules. The communities launched two campaigns in the past two years, one of which was focused on “no plastic bags” and the other focused on “no tanglers.”

In April 2017, the communities launched the “no plastic bags” message. As a result of this effort, feedback from local MRFs was positive—they saw noticeably cleaner inbound material.

In June 2018, a second campaign was launched around “no tanglers. The campaign lasted 14 weeks and featured 26 print ads in nine publications, 17 billboards, radio ads on eight stations, social media ads and direct mailers. Overall, it reached about 2 million residents across the region. Many residents were quick to respond to this campaign, as well.

Although the Florida communities launched two separate campaigns, both education campaigns featured similar, uniform messaging.

This concept of harmonizing recycling messages is spreading—the city of Milwaukee and neighboring Waukesha County, Wisconsin, are planning to release a joint educational message this year. Numerous other states and MRFsheds from around the country are considering collaboration to harmonize recycling messages. Tools are available to help countless communities join forces to deliver a harmonized recycling message.

Jill Martin is a senior technical assistance specialist for The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia. She can be reached at jmartin@recyclingpartnership.org.