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Small-Town America’s Part in Boosting U.S. Recycling Rates

At The Recycling Partnership, we believe recycling should be possible for all communities, no matter the size or geographic location. And we know it will take all of us—including small-town and rural America—to truly transform the U.S. recycling system and activate a circular economy. However, according to our 2021 Paying It Forward report, approximately 40 million U.S. households do not have recycling access that is on par with their trash service. It is critical to not only focus on major cities but to make concerted efforts to help smaller towns and communities activate their recycling potential—and we are doing just that. 

We define a small town as one that has fewer than 50,000 residents. In the U.S., there are more than 18,000 incorporated municipalities that fit this criterion, encompassing more than 27 million households. Naturally, each of these communities is unique, so there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to boosting recycling access and improving recycling behavior.

Overall, recycling programs in small and rural communities are more likely than those in larger municipalities to face challenges related to staffing, finances, educational outreach, geographical issues, and program maintenance. Also, in some cases, smaller communities experience challenges related to materials recovery facility (MRF) capacity and processing capability for specific materials.

What Recycling Improvements Look Like in Small Towns and Rural Areas

The Partnership has worked with 120 unique local governments/solid waste districts in small municipalities throughout 26 states. And it looks different depending on the needs of the residents and community.

  • In Alleghany County, North Carolina, it looks like drop-off recycling. In 2020, the county had to close its drop-off recycling facility (facilities) and they were recognizing low tonnages in the materials being collected. Through a grant from The Recycling Partnership, the drop-off facility was re-opened, and residents again had access to recycling, resulting in 58 new tons of recyclable materials previously lost to the landfill.
  • It can also be the expansion of carted recycling services. In Granite Falls, Wisconsin, the community saw an 89% increase in recycling tonnages once all 1,000 homes in the community received a new larger container. These new containers were paired with an education and outreach plan that included bilingual collateral strategically delivered to every home to maximize the infrastructure and deliver new tons through the recycling supply chain.
  • In Reynoldsburg, Ohio, it looked like a pilot project testing new strategies to improve recycling behaviors through The Partnership’s Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact. The Ohio project yielded interesting findings about the role of motivational messaging (distributed by cart tags and direct mail) in increasing recycling participation, awareness, and overall tons collected. The Center developed and tested unique messages that spoke to different motivations for recycling and deployed them on recycling routes in Reynoldsburg, a suburb in the Columbus metro area.

In two of the intervention groups, there was a substantial increase in average recycling tons that used empathetic and emotional messages and was sustained after the interventions. This suggests that motivational messages delivered by cart tags are an important tactic to consider and reminds us that different households can be motivated to recycle by different messaging.

A Dedicated Fund with a Dedicated Purpose 

To help further our work in this arena, in 2022 we launched the Small Town Access Fund, a unique and dedicated funding stream to support recycling efforts in smaller communities. This granting stream has been possible thanks to a founding donation from L’Oréal USA (in partnership with GlobalGiving), and additional funding from Arconic Foundation. So far, the total grant dollars from the Small Town Access Fund have totaled over $1.1 million, going toward 21 projects in various stages: upcoming, in progress, and completed. This Fund covers a portion, but certainly not all, of our work in small-town America.

What’s Next 

Small towns are the heartland of this country, and they are essential to America’s recycling goals and The Partnership’s work. That said, small and rural communities often face unique challenges when it comes to implementing and maintaining robust recycling programs. There is certainly more to be done, but we know there are many small-town strategies that produce big residential recycling gains. The Partnership has seen this firsthand in the communities we have been privileged to work with, and we look forward to continuing this critical work until everyone can recycle as easily as they can throw something away.