4 takeaways from study on Austin’s recycling behaviors

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On Thursday, several people gathered at Austin City Hall for a presentation on recycling put together through a partnership between Austin’s Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows and Austin Resource Recovery, the city department in charge of waste and recycling pickup.

“Understanding Perspectives and Recycling Behaviors of Austin Residents” was the culmination of five months of grassroots research and data gathering on the topic—an effort aimed at better understanding how the city can enhance its recycling behavior among residents while diminishing the carbon footprint. Here are four takeaways:

  1. The city’s Zero Waste by 2040 goal has plateaued

In 2011, Austin City Council unanimously adopted the Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan, which was built to help the city reach the council’s Zero Waste by 2040 goal, or keeping 90 percent of disposed materials out of the landfill. According to Emlea Chanslor, communications director for ARR, progress on that goal has plateaued at roughly 40 percent. However, the city remains aggressive in achieving that goal and has set a short-term milestone of 75 percent by 2020, a figure Chanslor said is achievable.

  1. People’s lives impact their recycling behaviors

During the study, the group interviewed 52 residents across various demographics. The group found that many lifestyle circumstances, including the size of a dwelling unit, number of housemates, economic situation, family size and free time all factor into people’s perception of and willingness to recycle.

  1. The group came up with 8 prototype initiatives to encourage recycling behavior

After the grassroots research, which revealed the various types of behaviors and reasons why residents do or do not recycle, the group came up with 167 concepts and eventually narrowed selections down to eight prototype initiatives to test on public sample groups.

Short-term ideas include: placing stickers on recycling bins that identify households that are “Master Recyclers,”; mass distributing pop-up cardboard recycling bins to the public; creating an “Instant Knowledge App” that allows people to quickly access information on recycling; and a “Digital Community Hub,” which is a dashboard to show people what impact their recycling has on the environment.

Then there are longer-term projects: “Cans for Crops” is a partnership with local farmer markets, food banks and grocery stores to swap recyclables for food for the homeless and low-income population; create a fleet of “Mobile Units” that visit neighborhoods to distribute educational information and supplies; placing “smart” dumpsters throughout the city to communicate information and positive reinforcement. The ultimate project for the group is implementing universal standards throughout the city for recycling, which would create standard colors, imagery and messaging on all bins used for disposing items.

  1. Anyone can sign up to be a test subject for the prototype initiatives

To gauge the success of the aforementioned initiatives, the group needs volunteers to sign up as prototype test subjects.

Anyone interested in participating in the tests can sign up by visiting tinyurl.com/austinprototypes. A disclaimer: Anyone who signs up to be a prototype for the recycling initiatives is automatically signed up to be a prototype in other initiatives coming from the city of Austin’s Innovation Office. However, you are notified beforehand and allowed to decline participation.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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