Greater recycling of plastic and other household materials is a critical component of the circular economy. But with global recycling rates hovering at a disappointing 16%, how do you create successful recycling programs in places without them? Even more challenging: how do you get people to adopt the daily habit of separating their waste?
In the mid-sized Argentinian city of Olavarría, Delterra, through with its Rethinking Recycling program, has spent the past two years tackling these questions. In 2020, we set out to create a comprehensive multi-stream household recycling initiative in a city accustomed to simply leaving their mixed waste on the curb every day.
Recycling rates were less than 1%. Today, among households with access to the new recycling and composting service, nearly 50% consistently separate their recyclables at home.
Next year, collection services are on track to be available to the city’s full population of 120,000 people. If we are able to replicate the current results to the whole city, Olavarría will become a city with one of the highest recovery rates in Latin America.
In this paper – the third in our Recycling Behavior Change series – we take a deep dive into how we achieved this impact. Although social change is messy and often unpredictable, our program succeeded in enabling new environmental habits inside people’s kitchens, patios, and gardens.
To date, three major learnings have emerged from Delterra’s work through Rethinking Recycling in Olavarría:
1: Explore your Community First (Invest in Human-Centered Design Research)
This initial phase of interviews, focus groups, and home visits provided invaluable insights on how best to support residents’ behavior change journey – even when most research had to be done virtually, due to the pandemic.
In Olavarría, the team discovered strong values around shared commitments between citizens and government, as well as pride in being a modern city, which could be invoked to counteract cultural resistance to change. They also found that most non-recyclers are open to recycling and just need support; skeptics are a minority. This finding enabled the team to focus limited resources on supporting willing participants.
2: Design by Doing (Test and Learn)
Testing a campaign with real residents, and adjusting based on how they respond, helps to identify what truly works and to find alternatives to costly tactics.
In Olavarría, the team’s first pilot aimed to maximize source separation rates among residents, and did achieve over 50% source separation, but its core strategy of open-ended, face-to-face conversations with residents was not scalable. Subsequent experiments showed that awareness marketing can generate broad interest in recycling, enabling short face-to-face interactions to be highly effective in activating source separation behaviors. Failures are also useful learning: for example, the team found that digital outreach, while highly scalable, cannot substitute for face-to-face interactions, producing lower participation rates; instead, digital elements supplement mass media and in-person outreach.
3: Discover When to Do What
Timing matters, and people need different kinds of information and support at different moments.
In Olavarría, the team discovered that introducing the change in waste collection service, and the need to handle waste differently at home, was most helpful several weeks before the new recycling and composting service began. Dropping off “starter kits” prior to speaking to residents was also effective. Residents need to make significant changes, not only in how they store waste, but learning a new schedule of different pickup days. Multiple touchpoints with small, immediately relevant pieces of information help people to make the transition to a complex new habit.
The final blueprint for activating source separation habits in Olavarría incorporates all of these learnings, with locally resonant messaging, careful sequencing of different types of touchpoints, and supportive materials designed to boost confidence and commitment. A pilot test across 500 households confirmed that this approach produces high source separation rates (50% of households for recyclables and 30% for organics, sustained even 9 months after activation), for a low cost per household ($4.50 USD). As Olavarría rolls out recycling and composting service across the whole city, the up-front investment in exploration and design helps ensure that all residents receive the support they deserve in making recycling in their city a success.