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Often, I get sad when I take out our rubbish or recycling.

At the apartment block where I live, we have communal recycling bins, an e-waste bin and a charity clothing bin. Yet people in our block usually ignore the signs and chuck rubbish into whichever bin is easiest.

However, I’ve noticed a change since social isolating due to COVID-19 has begun. People are sorting their waste better. Maybe it’s a sign that people are thinking more about the greater good. As we’ve seen nature rebound as pollution has dropped during the coronavirus pandemic, maybe we are also seeing the best of human nature peeking through too.

I’ll have to check in the coming months to see if it keeps up.

It’s also got me thinking about how we can encourage people to continue caring and behaving communally (in this case by sorting their waste properly) once COVID-19 is over. A quick Google shows that I’m not the first to ask how to get apartment residents to recycle right. These appear to be the challenges:

  • There’s no way to know who is doing the wrong thing, short of standing in the rubbish room all week.
  • Resident turnover is high and there is not a strong sense of community.
  • I, like most other tenants, don’t know who makes decisions about waste management in the building. It is the body corp? Who’s on the body corp?
  • I don’t want to sort out other people’s rubbish.
  • There is confusion about what can and can’t be recycled, as well as a scepticism about the recycling system, especially after China stopped taking much of our recycling in 2018.

And probably the biggest challenge:

  • I don’t know why people put waste in the wrong bin.

Possible solutions

The Victorian Government’s announcement to introduce a consistent kerbside four bin system by 2030, and a container deposit scheme could help. But as Jenni Downes, Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute highlights:

“Putting the wrong thing in the recycling bin is a problem across the country and taking glass out of the yellow bin won’t solve this issue. While this is already being tackled in government campaigns and council trials, we’ll likely need more government effort at both a systems and household level.”

I think for this effort to be effective it needs to be multi-faceted and sustained. It will need to be well planned and will likely include clear communications, education resources, incentives and other interventions to change this behaviour, including in multifamily buildings with communal waste facilities.

We can also look overseas to see what has worked well.

For example, in San Francisco, the company that handles the city’s recycling engaged property managers, tenants and cleaning and maintenance staff (as they call them, custodians) to address a rubbish pile at a large public housing property.

Infrastructure was replaced and upgraded, with posters explaining what materials go into which bin. We have that in our apartment block, so what interested me most from this case study is that they’ve continued with “…hammering the message, doing community outreach at parades, block parties and wherever else they can reach the masses, finding that face-to-face encounters with tenants is their most powerful tool”.

Also, they trained cleaning and maintenance staff to move materials if they’re in the wrong bin.

Closer to home, the Australian Waste & Recycling Expo has some good tips too.

Now, if residents go back into dumping rubbish into the wrong bin, I have some good ideas for tapping into best of my neighbours’ good nature (which all sound better than camping out in the rubbish room).

About Laura Griffin

Laura Griffin brings extensive agricultural media relations and editorial expertise to the Currie team. Her work at Stock & Land saw her selected for Fairfax Media’s Emerging Leaders Program. Laura enjoys time spent on the family farm in northern Victoria, playing board games and cooking themed feasts for family and friends.

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