Apartment Recycling: Challenges and Solutions

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There are numerous challenges to setting up successful recycling programs at apartment complexes including limited space for recycling bins and local recycling programs that only accept a few materials. Photo: Alex Vietti, Earth911

It’s a common complaint from eco-minded apartment residents: Why doesn’t my complex have a recycling program?

While there are a number of barriers preventing recycling at multifamily complexes, setting up a successful recycling program at your apartment building is not a lost cause. Earth911 spoke with Josh Allen, CEO of waste and recycling consulting company Global Disposal Reduction Services, about common challenges to apartment recycling and ways to overcome them.

Limited space, restrictive local programs and high recycling rates

“In a perfect world, there would be a trash and recycling bin at every [trash enclosure in an apartment complex],” says Allen, whose San Diego-based company works with small- and medium-sized businesses, including multifamily complexes, to reduce their waste streams and garbage bills.

But many apartments were not designed with recycling in mind and have little space to set recycling bins next to trash containers.

Apartment recycling programs are also limited by what their local municipal program accepts, says Allen, who works with complexes across the U.S.

“We worked on one [apartment] project in New Mexico, where the only thing the city accepts is glass,” he says. “At a project in Missouri, the local program only collected cardboard.”

And, of course, money plays a role in establishing any recycling program. It’s easier to convince property managers and homeowner associations (HOAs) to set up recycling programs in cities like Seattle, where the apartment complex pays for garbage to be hauled away, but recycling collection is free, Allen says.

But starting a recycling program in a city where garbage and recycling rates are comparable can prove to be a challenge; there is no economic incentive for the complex’s management to recycle, Allen points out.

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curbside, rental

Photo: Alexis Petru, Earth911

Tips to start a recycling program in your apartment complex

Despite these obstacles, Allen’s company has successfully launched recycling programs at numerous apartment complexes, and he offers these tips to residents who want to motivate their property manager or HOA to start their own program.

But if you live in California, your campaign may be easier than you expect: Last year, the Golden State passed a law requiring owners of multifamily housing with five or more units to provide recycling programs to their tenants starting in 2012.

1.Show them the money

The most compelling evidence you have to encourage your complex’s management to set up a recycling program is the cold, hard cash.

“If you’re someone in your community who wants to make a difference…showing [management] how it could save them money and presenting the return on investment is what the people in charge are looking for,” Allen says. “They have a budget; they have goals they have to hit.”

In Allen’s experience, management will be more likely to make the necessary investments – enlarging trash enclosures to accommodate recycling bins and dedicating extra staff time to recycling – if they see that the recycling program will reduce the complex’s garbage bills and pay for these expenses in two years or less.

Look up your city’s garbage and recycling rates and talk to your city’s recycling coordinator or waste management company about how much money a recycling program could save your complex.

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2. Audit your waste

To get a clearer picture of the cost savings your complex could achieve through recycling, Allen recommends convincing management to undertake an assessment of the complex’s waste stream: the amount of garbage you’re currently throwing out and how much of it could be recycled.

But digging through an entire apartment complex’s trash isn’t a task for one resident on his own; Allen advises that the apartment’s custodial staff carry out the audit or that management hire a waste consulting firm to perform the survey.

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3. Market your recyclables

Did the waste audit reveal that your complex is generating a recyclable that is not accepted by the local curbside program?

At the apartment complex in the New Mexico city that sponsors a glass-only recycling program, Allen’s company was able to find local scrap recyclers that set up bins at the complex for other recyclables and picked them up for free or – in a more attractive option for management – paid the complex for them.

Cardboard is the most marketable commodity an apartment complex can generate, according to Allen, and recycling cardboard can also significantly reduce a complex’s trash output.

“Cardboard takes up so much space in a dumpster,” Allen says. “If a complex has 20 trash dumpsters being emptied three times a week, you can set up a cardboard recycling program and cut down to 10 dumpsters or reduce dumpster collection to once or twice a week.”

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4. Spread the word

Once your apartment establishes its recycling program, you’ll need to educate other residents to make sure they’re sorting their waste and recyclables properly. And one of the best ways to do that is to label trash and recycling bins and enclosures with eye-catching signs, Allen says.

“Proper signage can increase recycling by 10 percent,” he says.

Get creative and come up with funny and encouraging messages on your signs, Allen recommends.

Is the recycling bin a few hundred yards from the trash can? Allen suggests making a sign that reads, “Burn 46 calories and recycle this way.”

You can also add statistics to your signs to show residents the impact of their recycling efforts, Allen says. For example, a sign on a paper and cardboard recycling bin can mention the number of trees saved by the complex’s recycling program in one year.

If there are separate enclosures for trash and recycling bins, paint the enclosures in different colors to help residents easily locate the correct containers, Allen says.

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