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Increasing Diversion, Community Outreach and Connecting Residents to the History of Recycling in Manassas, VA

By Monica Boehringer
Refuse and Recycling Coordinator
City of Manassas

Maintaining the interest of your stakeholders can be a challenge on the best of days. Sometimes, it seems that no matter how loud you shout “Recycle!,” it feels like you’re shouting into an endless void. But, there are ways to generate interest and enthusiasm about recycling without resorting to “thou shalt recycle …” All you have to do is “think outside the bin” and consider the power of positive messaging.

Dr. Robert Cialdini has devoted his career to studying the science of influence and persuasion. In Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment (2003), Cialdini discusses how developing campaigns that use social norms to generate beneficial conduct. He conducted a field experiment using three public service announcements (PSAs) that showed a majority of people recycling correctly, used positive language about recycling, and highlighted a single individual who wasn’t recycling correctly. The result was a 25 percent increase in recycling tonnage in the area where the PSAs were shown. His experiment made recycling correctly the normal behavior. Recycling wasn’t cast as the thing that we should do – but the thing that we all do.

As the Refuse and Recycling Coordinator for the City of Manassas, I try to use my background in community engagement and communications to guide the work that I do to promote recycling among residents. When I started working for the City in 2014 the first thing that I wanted to do was a bit of rebranding. For years, the City held a number of monthly drop-off days for household hazardous waste and electronics. The average monthly turnout was about 40 cars and the annual tonnage of materials diverted from landfill hovered around 59 tons. In November 2014, we held the first RecycleFest to coincide with America Recycles Day. A shredder was added to the event, the following year we introduced a clothing and small household wares drop-off with a local charity. We also added a Spring RecycleFest to coincide with Earth Day. By November 2017, 500 cars were counted and the annual tonnage for materials diverted from landfill topped 155 tons. There are no bands or balloons at RecycleFest. It is still a drop-off day, but the new name changed the tone of the event. We started getting volunteers wanting to register community hours. Residents started bringing donuts with them and stopping in for a chat about recycling. The high turnout for RecycleFest also led to higher turnout on regular drop-off days and a reduction in the number of televisions and paint cans being dumped around the City. All I did was change the name.

Rebranding an event is a simple task, but hard-to-reach stakeholders require a bit more work and creativity. The City of Manassas has a near even balance of townhomes to single family homes. We also have a population that 30 percent Hispanic or Latino. Much has been done and said about reaching this population through children. As a child of immigrants myself, I always felt that everyone was trying to get me to take home stuff that I didn’t really understand, and my parents would rather be contacted directly. I considered this when I was developing outreach for one of our most diverse communities, Georgetown South. In the summer of 2018, I asked their community manager if I could run a summer recycling camp for children aged 8-10. We met once a week for four weeks. Each four-hour session was a combination of education, crafts and neighborhood litter collection. Our big project was to make a movie. The children decided the theme of the movie and the story. They chose to be superheroes. Filming included a tour of our local recycling center. The summer camp ended with a screening of the movie, which we also put on YouTube, the City website and the community website. At last count, the movie made by children about recycling topped 1,000 views. Their families were so proud of them; they had to share the video.

So, you have rebranded and found a way to reach the hard to reach – great! How about everyone else? Finding something that making the act of recycling not only normal – but part of the very fabric of a community is something that may take a bit of work. The City of Manassas is best known for being a battlefield during the Civil War. In 2016, I set a task for the Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Solid Waste to find the connection between recycling and the Civil War. The challenge was to find how paper, metal and textiles were used and to provide evidence of recycling as part of our community history. They undertook research in the archives of the Library of Congress, met with historians and, a year later, put together an exhibition that told the story of men and women (North and the South), who reduced, reused and recycled because their lives depended on it. The group was recognized for their work by the City, the Virginia Recycling Association and by the Museum of the Civil War, for promoting the importance of recycling by making it an important part of the community’s history.

Recycling can be something that brings us together and spark our creativity. If the simple act of reusing a piece of paper can connect us to our history, imagine the possibilities of finding relevance in other forms of recycling. Normative messaging can take many forms. Step outside the bin and find your message. Being positive about recycling in your community can be very rewarding.


Cialdini, R. (n.d.). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105–109. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.01242

Keep America Beautiful (2018, November 2) America Recycles Day https://www.kab.org/our-programs/america-recycles-day

Earth Day Network (2018, November 2) Earth Day https://www.earthday.org/

Recycling Hero’s by Georgetown South (2018, November 2) https://youtu.be/ETVLR5iVICA

Recycling and the Civil War (2018, November 2) https://www.manassascity.org/2333/Recycling-and-the-Civil-War