Increasing recycling rates in your office

By Nicholas Scaltrito 11 August 2023

Green initiatives like proper waste management bring a range of benefits, but office sustainability managers are increasingly finding the green behaviours people have at home don’t always make their way to the office.

Findings from the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) consumer insight surveys suggest 76 per cent of respondents find recycling to be one of the most impactful sustainable actions people can take. Great right? Yes, but unfortunately this type of sustainable action that is so well established at home is not as prevalent in Australian workplaces.  

The disparity between the perceived sense of control over recycling behaviours at home compared to the office is a major factor between motivation and compliance. The disparity of control can be imagined in terms of the ‘distance’, both physical and mental, between people in the workplace and they waste they produce there. 

At home, since recyclables and waste are usually separated together the convenience of having the bins close together is a great motivator. Incorporating this reduced distance into the office can have the same effect. Providing waste and recycling facilities close together gives users options and, when faced with well labeled options, people are more likely to stop and think about the impact of their decisions. This approach is the thought process behind recycling campaigns like the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL), which aims to provide correct recycling information at the bin when people ‘check it before [they] chuck it’. Making this process quick and easy makes it more likely that correct recycling behaviours are adopted. 

Employees are also distanced from the waste process in the office as most are not involved in the collection and disposal process. Whereas at home they have council-provided bins and may face warnings for improperly using them, those same motivators aren’t available in the office. If there is no feedback on how their behaviour impacts the recycling efforts of their workplace, there is no reason for workers to consider changing. Recycling is considered beyond their control in the first place. By communicating the shared responsibility of workplace waste to your staff, you are closing this distance and making them aware of their greater impact outside of the home. 

So how do we motivate these behaviours in the workplace? 

If you’re part of a ‘Green Team’ in your workplace or just want to take on the responsibility yourself, creating a centralised collection point for waste and recycling should be one of your top priorities. Fundamentally, this is about making it easy for people to find where to put their waste, but an additional advantage is making peoples decisions visible to others. By introducing a shared system, you are making the process of disposal more public and noticeable to everyone else, which will encourage correct recycling behaviours to become the norm. Communicating the effectiveness of these changes by performing a waste audit or simply accounting for the impact these changes have made will help keep the benefits a conscious feature of the workplace structure. 

Similarly, if you already have a centralised waste and recycling point, educating staff on proper recycling is critical. A common barrier to engaging in recycling behaviours is confusion. Considering offices produce more types of waste than most people do at home, the opportunity for people to be confused, and therefore turned off from recycling, is higher. Clearly labelling the different types of bins in your collection points with correct signage or engaging with schemes that provide their own bins like Batteries 4 Planet Ark or Cartridges 4 Planet Ark can mitigate this confusion, as can establishing workplace champions. 

Some tips for making people engage more with recycling in the office 

  1. Make it noticeable: For the same reason we have different colours for our bins at home, making your waste stations colourful can make them more engaging. Use posters that are bright and put them in high traffic areas, giving new reasons for people to stop by and preventing your waste station from blending into the background.  

  2. Make it simple: Recycling can be difficult, especially with different labels confusing the process. Signage should be clear and concise, communicating exactly what action you want staff to take. For items that are particularly difficult to recycle, be sure to outline each step required and discuss them in a meeting to reinforce correct behaviours. 

  3. Make reinforcement positive: Using terms like ‘don’t’ or talking about recycling errors represent ‘negative punishment’ cues. They disregard the efforts of the audience without providing constructive alternatives to existing behaviours. This can cause resentment and may have a negative impact on the future uptake of recycling behaviours. Keeping the messaging positive unconsciously rewards people for their behaviours and when that encouragement is reinforced, so is the uptake of behaviour. 

 These tips have been adapted from ‘Fostering Sustainable Behaviour' by Doug McKenzie-Mohr and William Smith. 

Nicholas Scaltrito
Nick joined Planet Ark in 2021 coming from a background of graphic design and marketing communications. A self-described “jack-of-all-trades’, Nick likes to channel his helpful nature and enthusiasm for change in all aspects of life from his social life and work to his community volunteering.