Solid Waste & Recycling


Community-Based Social Marketing

Public engagement strategies are a blend of the science of behavioural psychology with the practical and proven tenets of community-based planning. The approach recognizes the importance of community...

Public engagement strategies are a blend of the science of behavioural psychology with the practical and proven tenets of community-based planning. The approach recognizes the importance of community and cultural values and builds on principles of human behaviour. By engaging people in a dialogue about the programs they use, a municipality can that ensure effectiveness, efficiency and economics are maximised by achieving high participation and capture rates.

We know that the key to an efficient blue box system is to maximize the materials collected. The amount of material collected is a simple function of program participation rates and the percentage of correct materials placed into the collection stream.

Why is it hard to achieve the capture rates critical to achieving a 60 per cent waste diversion target? Research demonstrates that awareness and understanding of an issue or program do not necessarily translate into appropriate action. For instance, while nearly everyone agrees that donating blood is a good thing (and most people can readily list the benefits of doing so), only 3.5 per cent of eligible Canadian’s actually donate. Similarly, people who know better continue to smoke, fail to wear their seat-belts, and litter, although they understand the problems that their behaviours precipitate.

Fortunately, the science of behavioural psychology provides us with approaches to overcoming barriers to behavioural change, as has been widely and successfully promoted by noted “environmental psychologist” Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Lura Consulting and Dr. McKenzie-Mohr have worked together to increase and sustain participation in many waste reduction programs.

In the experience of the consultants in both North American and the UK, application of behavioural psychology to waste management programs is most effective when combined with time-tested elements of public engagement.

For example, the City of Fredericton operated a city-wide recycling program that had dwindled to a participation rate of approximately 18 per cent. Furthermore, the recycling stream was significantly contaminated with non-recyclable material. Few people were using the system, and those that did use it were doing so incorrectly.

Under contract to the city, Lura and Dr. McKenzie-Mohr developed a public engagement approach to identify and remove barriers to participation in the program. By engaging the residents of a 500 home neighbourhood of the city in a dialogue about the existing program, its shortcomings, and what would constitute a more effective recycling program, the project team was able to assist the Fredericton in the development of a new and more convenient collection scheme and a completely new approach to communications. The program was successfully re-launched and tested in a pilot collection area, realizing more than 85 per cent participation and less than 5 per cent contamination.

The media attention garnered by the success served to develop a demand in the rest of the city for the new program; this was successfully re-launched city-wide after the pilot was completed. The program continues to be successful, and last year was extended by the Frederic Region Solid Waste Commission to include rural communities surrounding Fredericton.

Public engagement

So what is public engagement in waste management terms? Public engagement is an ongoing dialogue with a community to identify and remove barriers to participation and maximise program effectiveness, efficiency and economics. Preferably, public engagement begins at the time that the municipality is first considering a new waste management program, so that the input of the customers can be knitted into the design of the system. As well, as systems expand and change, community engagement provides feedback on existing programs and guidance on new ones.

Effective public engagement strategies include:

1) Meaningful two-way dialogue between the system managers and their customers to identify barriers and opportunities to overcome them;

2) Development of an effective and convenient system with an integrated communications program based not only on awareness but on behaviour change; and,

3) Testing and fine-tuning the methods, messages and techniques.

Meaningful two-way dialogue

People may know that recycling is the right thing to do. They may perceive, however, that sorting materials in their home is time consuming, confusing, inconvenient or that their blue box is not large enough to accommodate their materials. These issues may be enough to prevent them from participating, so uncovering such barriers is crucial. This is accomplished by directly engaging people in the community, through standard research methods such as surveys, focus groups and informal interviews. The identification of barriers and opportunities is a critical step that must not be skipped, as there are always new things learned about real and perceived barriers from talking directly to residents in the community.

System design

With the input from the community in hand, a system can be developed or modified to meet the needs of the customers. Typically, convenience and economics are very important to customers. Convenience not only speaks to ease of preparation of materials or levels of service such as curbside collection or depot drop-off. It can also speak to collection frequency, where customers might feel that they do not have enough room in their homes to store materials between collections.

When developing the system, it’s also critical to ensure the communications and education program are integrated. Although important, it is insufficient to simply make customers aware of why they should use the program, how to prepare materials, what materials to recycle, when to set them at the curb, and where the program is available. Since we know that awareness does not necessarily translate into action, it’s important to use the tools of behavioural psychology to foster the preferred behaviour. These include vivid communications, provision of information, prompts or reminders at the proper time and in the proper place, commitment strategies and the development of norms. These are some of the tools that Dr. McKenzie-Mohr has outlined in his work on Community-Based Social Marketing.

Another important element of communications is public acknowledgment. Providing feedback on a regular interval instills a feeling of accomplishment and pride. It’s a simple fact that we like to be praised for our efforts, and doing so helps to ensure that a program is sustained.

Testing, evaluating and fine-tuning

Monitor the results to assess effectiveness of the strategy and the various tools employed. The strategy should be designed to include baseline data on behaviour (e.g., participation and capture rates) and to obtain new data for the purpose of assessment of progress. Data collection should include assessments of how the messages are being received (attitudes), which delivery methods are having the greatest impact (recognition), and how behaviour is changing (observed behaviour is preferred over reported behaviour). After evaluation, always look for ways to fine-tune the program. Fine-tuning a program can lead to significant increases in efficiency and cost-effectiveness. For instance, making a program more accessible could lead to better capture rates. Improved communications or support could lead to less contamination in the recyclables stream. Both improvements can translate into a more cost-effective program.

John Smith works in the Hamilton, Ontario office of Lura Consulting. He wishes to thank Ken Donnelly, VP Atlantic Canada in the Halifax, Nova Scotia office, for contributing to this article. Contact John at

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