About that Lincoln Recycling Education Project

If you live in or pay attention to what’s happening in Lincoln, you may have seen that we are poised for a really great project with the City of Lincoln to help them with a major educational and outreach campaign focused on growing the city’s recycling rate. Since the project is getting a fair amount of attention, we wanted to take a moment to clarify any confusion or misconceptions about the project.


On Monday, August 14th, the Lincoln City Council will hold a public hearing on whether to approve a Comprehensive Recycling Education Program contract to increase Lincoln’s recycling rate.

Verdis Group partnered with Carson+Co Global and the Nebraska Recycling Council to propose a comprehensive plan to tackle this project. We went through the City’s rigorous RFP process and competed against three other firms for the contract. We were delighted in June when we learned that our team had been selected for the project.

The City Council had already appropriated funds for this project, and a matching grant of $225K from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality had already been secured. So the Council meeting of July 31st, 2017, was expected to be a rote affair. Instead, council members voiced several concerns (some are summarized below) and voted to delay the vote by two weeks and called for a public hearing. As of this writing, it is not clear how council members intend to vote. They are still gathering information and listening to their constituents.

Project Overview

Current Recycling Status. The city of Lincoln currently has a 21% recycling rate — much lower than many other cities. Coupled with an increasing population, the City anticipates a need for a new landfill by 2030. Importantly, an ordinance banning corrugated cardboard from the landfill, which was passed by Lincoln’s City Council on a 6-1 vote, will go into effect on April 1, 2018.

Program Goals. The Comprehensive Recycling Education Program’s key goal is to meet the critical need for a multifaceted education, engagement, and advisory program that collaborates with Lincoln residents and businesses to ensure awareness of the forthcoming cardboard ban and support appropriate action to divert cardboard (and other recyclables) from the landfill. The program seeks to increase the City’s recycling rate to 32% by the conclusion of the three-year project and double the baseline number of households currently subscribing to curbside recycling.

Approach. The program will entail a research-based, data-driven marketing and community engagement approach providing a call to action to sign up for curb-side recycling service or take recyclables to one of Lincoln’s recycling drop-off locations. Informed by advisory committee inputs, including local recycling collectors, processors, and waste haulers, this program will provide a range of high-impact services to guide recycling implementation for institutions, multi-family complexes, and commercial entities, including a focus on organizations that have a high volume of material waste.

The program will impact community-wide recycling through TV, radio and event advertising, billboard and bus wraps, direct mail, videos featuring Lincoln community leaders, social marketing, and personal community outreach. Educational materials, translated into various languages, will be distributed throughout the City. Presentations will be given at civic and community events, clubs, festivals, etc., allowing in-person engagement with Lincoln residents. Customized assistance will be given to commercial entities that produce high volumes of waste and recyclable materials and who wish to begin a recycling program.

Citizen stakeholder advisory committees will provide ongoing feedback to guide the process and ensure special consideration for multicultural, multilingual, low income and elderly populations. The Be A Recycling Champion campaign, which we partnered with Carson+Co on, will continue in order to reduce contamination in the recycling stream.

Data Collection. Monitoring and evaluation efforts will occur in collaboration with the City, recycling collectors, processors, waste haulers, and the public to track program success indicators. These will likely include city recycling rate, number of recycling customers, annual per capita disposal rate, and materials collected at recycling drop-off sites. At the beginning and end of year one, a landfill waste characterization study will take place. Secondary indicators include citizen science data, online recycling pledges, and public recycling attitudes and knowledge surveys.

Incentives. Strategic incentives will be used to encourage recycling behavior and ensure it continues once incentives are removed. A waste reduction and recycling assistance program for the commercial sector to rebate up to $750 for recycling start-up and collection costs will be publicized and promoted. Public recognition, low-cost giveaways, and special promotions will be considered as levers to drive change. Discussion with waste haulers may yield additional ideas for incentives that could be offered to their customers.

Responding to Concerns that Have Been Raised

Several concerns about the program were raised at and since the July 31 City Council meeting. We wanted to take a moment to address a few of them directly.

Cost. The total cost of our proposal was $850K. This proposal was the lowest of the four received. The others were well above $1M. Our originally submitted proposal was $618K, but the City asked us to make some changes based on what they wanted to see happen in year one, and based on the funds they had available. We revised the budget up accordingly. As was mentioned in this August 11 Lincoln Journal Star article, due to the cost concerns, however, we suggested the City drop $140K from the budget by removing the third year from the project, which they agreed to do. We also recently agreed to make the contract a one-year agreement with an option to extend the second year.

Direct mail. A citizen at the city council meeting expressed the irony of including direct mail as a strategy in a recycling education project. Direct mail is just one of the dozens of strategies we plan to use to reach residents to communicate about the cardboard ban going into effect April 1, 2018. We feel that one targeted direct mail piece, for example to older residents, may be one of the most effective ways we can reach some residents with necessary information about the fact that they can no longer place corrugated cardboard in the trash, how they can sign up for curbside recycling services, and how to recycle correctly. We know that older adults are less likely to get their information online or via social media, so a direct mail piece can be an effective communication vehicle. However, we plan to examine all our strategies carefully once the program is underway to make sure they are the most effective.

Research. Some raised concern that this is a research project that will duplicate the efforts of Lincoln’s Solid Waste Plan 2040. The creation of the SWMP 2040 included a large group of stakeholders that studied recycling in depth over a multi-year process and made recommendations. We have no plans to duplicate that work; on the contrary, our project will build on the excellent work of this task force to build on and implement their recommendations.

Our project is not a research project. The first 4-6 weeks will certainly include some research to make sure we are understand the real and perceived barriers to recycling in Lincoln. This will consist of a survey, focus groups, and personal interviews. We will use that knowledge to inform the way we develop the rest of the program. The bulk of the program is developing and implementing strategies and messages that will help Lincolnites recycle more.

Consultants’ Time vs. Direct Costs. Some Council members expressed concern about the ratio of consultants’ time to direct costs. The ratio is about 65% consultants’ time and 35% direct costs. It is important to note that this is not just a marketing project; it is an education and outreach campaign that is designed to reach the heart of our community and make change. We are planning for personal outreach and commercial advising services as part of the project. We will go out into the community and speak to civic organizations, neighborhood associations, church groups, etc., to teach them about the cardboard ban and how to recycle. On the commercial side, we will provide personalized services to interested businesses to help them develop a recycling program. We know that Lincoln is “a big small town” and personal communication makes a huge difference to making change happen in our community. Our focus on personal interaction with residents and businesses is a big factor for why the portion of consultants’ time is 65%.

Concern about mind control or social engineering. Some expressed concern that this campaign will use some sort of mind control methods to encourage people to recycle. The methodology that will undergird the project, community-based social marketing, is a widespread and proven method for encouraging people to adopt more environmentally-friendly behaviors. Here are a few case studies:

In Closing

We know that the Lincoln’s citizens and the City of Lincoln have invested a lot of time researching the issue of recycling and preparing to increase Lincoln’s recycling rate. Our team is all Lincoln-based, and we have a proven track record of success working with the city and with the complex system of waste haulers who provide recycling services. We are ready to get to work implementing what we believe is a great plan that will make a difference for the city we love.

To reiterate, our intent in sharing the aforementioned information is to provide an update on the project and to clarify any misconceptions floating around. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the project leads below.

Kim Morrow
Senior Associate
Verdis Group

Jamie Carson
Carson+Co Global

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