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Recycling in Atlanta: Increasing Access for Multifamily Housing Communities 

A first-of-its-kind multifamily recycling initiative produced results in Atlanta, Georgia, providing a roadmap for communities across the United States and continued success in Georgia. 

The Do You Recycle? Challenge, designed by The Recycling Partnership, city officials and stakeholders, focused on improving access and recycling participation at multifamily housing communities through strong communication tactics and the voluntary engagement of property managers. As a result, 27 multifamily properties, representing nearly 5,000 residential housing units, received improved recycling education and infrastructure. This approach leveraged a network of local nonprofits and was led by the desire of multifamily properties to be people-centered and provide for their residents.  

“The Do You Recycle? Challenge was an incredible opportunity for us that was brought by The Recycling Partnership,” said Peggy Whitlow Ratcliffe, Founder & Executive Director, Live Thrive Inc., an Atlanta area recycling nonprofit that administered and managed the challenge. “This program actually gave the opportunity, providing educational materials for these properties to be able to educate their community on what they really should, and shouldn’t recycle, they got to put signage up and provide infrastructure improvements.” 

In theory, recycling a box should be as easy as tossing something in the trash. In reality, recycling can be a complicated reverse supply chain that starts in the home and relies heavily on multiple stakeholders to deliver, process, and manufacture recycled items. On top of that, many people across the country – 40% of U.S. residents – lack recycling access and residents cannot recycle as easily as they can throw something away. 

In Atlanta, city officials and community organizations, with the help of The Recycling Partnership (The Partnership), addressed this opportunity over the course of three years. A $4 million-plus grant-funded project funded by The Coca-Cola Foundation focused on three key opportunities to improve recycling across the city:  

  1. bolstering single-family curbside participation and reducing contamination, 
  2. expanding multifamily recycling opportunities, 
  3. improving university recycling education and infrastructure. 

Improving recycling services for multifamily communities, residents who live in apartments or condos, was a cornerstone of the project. Multifamily communities are historically underserved when it comes to recycling services, facing barriers such as lack of recycling bins and signage, inconsistent outreach on accepted materials and high resident and property management turnover. In fact, nationally, only about 30-40% of multifamily units have access to recycling. 

2020 numbers show that Atlanta has close to 1,500 multifamily properties, representing approximately 140,000 individual housing units. The city has a multifamily recycling ordinance requiring properties to provide recycling access, but properties needed help to comply with the ordinance and offer recycling to residents. To tackle this issue, the following action steps were implemented first in a pilot and then in the broader Do You Recycle? Challenge: 

  • Increase recycling education and signage as well as provide tote bags, information cards, and door tag reminders about how to recycle 
  • Provide technical assistance to help property managers assess service and measure the impact of the campaign  
  • Offer opportunities for properties to apply for grants to purchase equipment/infrastructure like recycling carts or more permanent signage  
  • Provide multifamily property managers resources and information needed to comply with the ordinance 

“Ensuring people can and do recycle is easier said than done, but The Recycling Partnership has never backed down from this challenge. Improving recycling in multifamily communities is a particularly nuanced endeavor. It’s imperative to meet people, communities, and properties where they are and tailor resources to meet specific needs,” said Craig Wittig, Vice President for Grant Implementation and with The Recycling Partnership. “Our work with multifamily communities in Atlanta, Georgia has been extremely rewarding for thousands of residents, and provides additional evidence-based strategies to help improve recycling access for all.”  

Piloting Techniques to Improve Access 

The Partnership has been researching, piloting, and scaling solutions for multifamily recycling since pre-pandemic times, making gains in cities like Orlando, Florida and Tacoma, Washington, and recognizing the importance of dedicated staffing, stakeholder engagement, and clear, multi-lingual signage. In Atlanta, The Partnership tested a voluntary property management engagement strategy to increase recycling access and participation. The Atlanta multifamily project began with the launch of a pilot program to test educational outreach with 12 properties (nearly 4,000 individual residential units), three Gables Residential and nine AMLI Residential properties across the city of Atlanta. 

The pilot included inspecting recycling at properties to identify contamination (items that are not supposed to be in the recycling stream, like plastic bags) and monitor the effectiveness of education. The Partnership created outreach material templates and covered the cost to design, print, and deliver information cards, door tags, and tote bags for residents to collect their recyclables. The Partnership also collaborated on social media posts and building signage. Properties shared information about the campaign via email as well. 

For a few data snapshots, a post-campaign survey of AMLI property residents found that nearly 25% of respondents said they either recycled more or began recycling for the first time because of the education campaign and close to 32% were more confident about recycling in their community. Results varied by the property, but in a Gables resident survey, in-home reusable tote bags to collect recyclables and educational signage were the two most helpful elements of the pilot. Learnings from the overall pilot also included the importance of naming a dedicated point of contact for property managers to triage questions and concerns, as well as need for user-friendly ways to collect data to help property managers understand the impact of campaigns, and where to tailor resources if needed.  

Scaling Do You Recycle? Challenge 

The scaled Do You Recycle? Challenge, like the pilot, began with engaging multifamily buildings by providing training and education. As mentioned, the key component to this initiative was improving recycling services through voluntary engagement strategies – not enforcement. To put this into practice, participating multifamily properties received technical assistance, education materials, signage and more. Building on the work of the pilot, participating properties utilized an online app to set up a property profile and catalog recycling data. The app provided ways to catalog recycling contamination to inform how and what to recycle. As part of the challenge, properties could also apply for a mini grant to purchase infrastructure such as recycling carts and more permanent signage (some new signage was provided as part of the program without the mini grant) – a welcome opportunity for property management teams without additional costs.  

As in the pilot, properties also received free educational items such as tote bags, information cards and door hanger tags, but there was a new streamlined process to order educational materials and an online portal for designing tote bags. Educational materials were also translated in Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Russian for two Atlanta Housing senior living properties. These efforts, coupled with strategic partnerships, were people-focused, engaging and encouraging recycling progress. Key local partners included: Live Thrive, Atlanta Housing, Livable Buckhead, Atlanta Apartment Association, City of Atlanta Office of Resilience, Georgia Recycling Coalition, and Atlanta Recycles. 

A year since the Do You Recycle? Challenge launched, three Atlanta multifamily communities were recognized in July 2022 for their recycling improvements. Cortland at Phipps had the largest percentage increase in resident recycling participation, increasing the average recycling pounds per residential unit from 1.2 pounds to 2.8 pounds. Georgia Avenue Highrise decreased recycling contamination – the number of inappropriate materials in the recycling stream like food waste and plastic bags – by 40%. Finally, Lofts at the Belvedere averaged about 5.9 recycling pounds per residential unit per week, accounting for the largest number of recyclable items collected.  

Through this strategic partnership, recycling improved across Atlanta communities. And the work is not ending. Atlanta multifamily properties can still access resources and education through the end of 2022. Go online or email LT@livethrive.org. 

Additionally, lessons learned from Atlanta are highlighted in a NEW, expanded multifamily recycling guide, which has resources and guidance to implement a multifamily recycling challenge. If you are thinking about improving recycling in your multifamily community, download The Partnership’s FREE  Multifamily Recycling Guide and Community Toolkit. Let’s make recycling progress, together.  

The story of Atlanta’s multifamily recycling program transformation is the third in a three-part series outlining the recent success of the city’s recycling evolution aided by a multi-year $4 million+ grant from The Recycling Partnership with financial support from The Coca-Cola Foundation. From increasing participation and education in its curbside recycling program to furthering equity and access in university and multifamily recycling, explore how these initiatives can work in communities nationwide.