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Local governments face many decisions as they develop recycling programs for their communities. This fact sheet identifies elements that should be considered when planning, implementing, publicizing, and evaluating recycling programs.

Why Recycle?

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Implementing a recycling program offers several economic benefits. Recycling can create jobs and reduce solid waste collection, transportation, and disposal costs. It can generate revenues from the sale of recyclable materials. Recycling also helps to preserve environmental quality. It saves landfill space, preserves resources, conserves energy, reduces air pollution, and saves water.

What Can Be Recycled?

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Many items can be recycled if markets are available for the materials.

Recyclable materials include:

  • newsprint
  • corrugated cardboard
  • office and computer paper
  • mixed paper
  • magazines
  • telephone directories
  • glass containers
  • aluminum cans and scrap
  • steel cans and ferrous (iron and steel) scrap
  • plastics
  • yard waste
  • used motor oil
  • food waste
  • wood waste
  • asphalt
  • concrete
  • boiler ash
  • construction and demolition debris
  • textiles
  • large appliances
  • tires
  • lead-acid batteries
  • copier and laser printer toner cartridges

Step 1 - Preliminary Planning

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Designate a Recycling Coordinator

The first step in developing a successful recycling program is to appoint a recycling coordinator to orchestrate the various program components. A full-time coordinator is the most effective. If you cannot afford to hire someone full time, consider hiring a part-time person; assigning the responsibility to a current program administrator or public works employee; or recruiting a dedicated volunteer.

Survey Present Solid Waste Operations

In your community, solid waste may be collected by the public works department, a solid waste hauler contracted by the local government, or haulers who contract with individual households. Regardless of who collects the waste, you can determine how much solid waste is disposed of by checking local landfill records. Then conduct a waste characterization study to figure out how much of the waste could be recycled — that is, determine how much of the waste is made up of the various types of recyclable materials. Be sure to factor in the types and amounts of recyclables already collected, for example, by Scout troops, commercial buy-back operations, and fundraising drives.

Locate Markets for Materials

To determine the availability of potential markets for recyclable materials, check the North Carolina Recycling Markets Directory published by the Department of Environmental Quality. You can also do an online search for "recycling markets," "waste paper," "plastic scrap," and "scrap metal." In addition, you can consult local waste haulers.

Select a Collection Method

Decide which is better for your community: drop-off centers or a curbside recycling program (or a combination of the two). Drop-off centers are commonly used in areas where individual household collection is impractical and cost savings are important. Advantages of drop-off centers are their low capital costs, ease in collecting more categories of materials than is practical with curbside collection, lack of need for staffing, and round-the-clock accessibility. However, drop-off centers are less convenient than curbside pickup, and as a result a lower volume of materials is usually recovered. Also, recyclables can be contaminated with unacceptable items; the centers are vulnerable to theft, vandalism, and litter; and the grounds can become unsightly if not staffed.

The convenience of curbside collection results in a higher recovery rate than can be achieved with drop-off centers, and collection can be consolidated with solid waste pickup. However, curbside collection involves higher equipment and operating costs, it is labor intensive, and it is a more complex process to manage.

Choose a collection method based upon financial costs, available equipment, staff resources, and housing density in the collection area. Examine similar local government recycling programs to determine if their methods would suit your needs.

Define Equipment Requirements

Is your current equipment inventory adequate or will additional machinery be needed? Consider retrofitting existing vehicles, trailers, and dumpsters. Find out what similar local governments are using.

Conduct an Economic Analysis

Determine the costs of each collection method or program and assess current funding availability. Consider alternative funding mechanisms and remember to factor in solid waste cost savings and anticipated revenues from the sale of recyclable materials.

Consider Regional Recycling

Contact local government recycling coordinators and talk to your neighboring communities about establishing a regional recycling program.

Benefits include:

  • greater marketing leverage and higher prices because of larger volumes;
  • lower equipment and labor costs;
  • decreased transportation costs; and
  • reduced administrative costs.

Step 2 - Designing Your Program

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Identify Markets

The buyers of your community's recyclable items determine how the materials should be collected and processed. Find out how the buyers want materials prepared, for example:

  • baled or loose
  • crushed, densified, granulated, or whole
  • mixed or separated

Keep in mind that there are more marketing options with higher quality materials. Arrange for shipping the materials to market with your local government, a recycling collection service or processor, or the buyers, some of whom will pick up the materials.

Design the Drop-Off Center

Drop-off centers should be located in areas convenient to program participants. Locate them on accessible, secure, and visible sites. Factors to consider include:

  • protecting the materials from weather;
  • providing adequate storage space;
  • providing access for collection vehicles;
  • ensuring organized traffic flow; and
  • keeping the site attractive and clean.

Design the Curbside Collection Program

Decide how residents should prepare the materials, for example, whether they should be separated by type and how they should be packaged. Select the collection method and determine the equipment to be used. Decide how to address the accessibility needs of elderly individuals or people with disabilities.

Determine the Collection Schedule and Routes

  • Collecting recyclables on the same day as other solid waste makes it easier for participants to remember the schedule, but more equipment and personnel may be needed.
  • If collection is on a different day than that of solid waste collection, the same crew may be used on off days, but it is harder for residents to remember the schedule. Lower recycling rates may result.

Once the previous decisions have been made, you can establish the size and duties of the collection crew.

Choose Between Private and Public Collection

Many local governments are choosing to contract for solid waste management services. To help you decide whether to choose this option, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of public versus private collection with officials from other local governments who have experience with this issue.

Step 3 - Operating Your Program

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When implementing your recycling system, anticipate problems and plan ways to resolve them. Design the system to be flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.

Conduct Public Education and Publicity

Begin communicating with and involving the public early in the process of planning the recycling program. Plan and implement a program kick-off to generate interest in and enthusiasm for the program. Inform the public of program requirements and solicit their support. Address the why, what, how, where, and when of the program. Provide easy-to-understand instructions on how to participate, and keep communications positive. Tailor the program to address specific populations, such as those who do not speak English, and address residents' concerns. Borrow ideas for successful public education activities that other communities have used. Provide feedback on program accomplishments and make publicity an ongoing effort. Develop a program to educate recycling program personnel, including collection crews.

You can employ a variety of publicity tools:

  • letters from the mayor or county commissioners to residents and businesses
  • special events such as games and contests
  • printed materials
  • mass media announcements
  • personal outreach at public events
  • block leaders
  • direct communication with individual residents
  • presentations or displays at schools, fairs, and community events
  • messages mailed with utility bills

Monitor and Evaluate Your Program

Keep accurate and complete records of all activities, including amounts of materials recovered; revenues and costs; problems with collection, processing, or markets; and complaints by the public and staff members. Analyze program records to ascertain if:

  • the collection method is reliable;
  • more education and publicity are needed;
  • recovery rates are consistent; and
  • the quality of recyclables is consistently high.

Set up a system for receiving suggestions and complaints and how to respond to them. If your program uses a private contractor, make sure the contractor complies with work specifications.

Look Forward

As you refine your recycling program, build on the enthusiasm you have generated for recycling and direct it toward other waste management measures such as reduction of waste at its source, reuse of waste materials, composting, and procurement of recycled products. A creative, integrated approach to solid waste management will enable your community to reach its solid waste reduction goals.


Extension Solid Waste Specialist
Horticultural Science

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Publication date: Aug. 19, 2019

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