Numerous studies in 2016 pointed to the need for better recycling outreach. And though some allege that flat recycling rates are a sign that outreach has reached its peak, I would argue that it’s simply time to change the way we play the outreach game.
More than 50 percent of residents say they turn to the internet when they need recycling information, according to a recent Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) survey. It seems odd, then, that over half of the municipalities we’ve evaluated are not following basic best practices when it comes to providing information online.
The bulk of digital outreach that we have seen in the municipal recycling sphere is stuck in the 1990s – lengthy pages of text with no headings and few images, buried deep in city websites – or doesn’t exist all. Can we really say that outreach has peaked when the potential of digital outreach is only beginning to be realized?
The first outreach tool we launched at Recyclist is a Public Education Platform, a fully localizable website for recycling programs. It has a searchable guide with information on how to reduce, reuse and recycle over 250 items, as well as collection reminders, e-newsletters and pages for residents and businesses on topics such as composting, recycling at work and where you can donate goods in your community.
Now that our Public Education Platform has been live for a full year, our sites’ metrics are beginning to show us how people access online recycling information and what information they’re most interested in. Although some aspects of the data are bound to change over time, the analytics give us important insight into how digital outreach can be done correctly. Here is some of what we learned in our first year:
Mobile traffic is significant
All of the municipal recycling program websites on the Recyclist platform receive more visits from users on mobile devices (phones or tablets) than on desktop devices (computers or laptops). On some sites, we see up to 70 percent of visitors coming from mobile devices. On all sites, the vast majority of mobile users are on phones, not tablets.
If you have a website that looks fine on a computer, but requires mobile users to do the two-finger zoom to see anything, it’s simply not enough. You don’t need a mobile app, but the recycling information on your website must be mobile accessible. Otherwise, you are effectively closing the door on as many as 7 of every 10 members of your community.
Search results matter
Organic search traffic (i.e., visitors who arrive via Google, Yahoo or Bing) accounts for nearly 60 percent of traffic to Recyclist websites. If your information is not search-engine optimized, you’re again missing out on not just a handful of individuals but potentially more than half of your audience.
We frequently see two trends in outreach delivery that fly directly in the face of search engine best practices. One is publishing recycling information in PDFs. While search engines can technically index PDFs, actual web pages outperform PDFs in search results by a country mile (not to mention that the PDF is a wildly frustrating format for all those mobile users).
The other trend we see is publishing recycling program information on a page that’s buried many clicks down in a city website. When a page is hard to navigate to, search engines see that page as unimportant, and it accordingly ranks lower in search results. If you’re publishing information on a city website, the website structure may be beyond your control. This is one of the many reasons we are big proponents of standalone recycling outreach websites, such as StocktonRecycles.com.
Long-term commitment pays off
Established websites have a big advantage in terms of traffic, due to both brand recognition and higher ranking in search results. For instance, when we launched a municipal website at a web address that had already been in use for several years, that site received four page views per household in its first year. Your website and branding can serve as the foundation for all of your outreach efforts. By picking a brand and web address now and consistently promoting it on all of your marketing materials you will reap compounding benefits year after year.
Recycling guides are key
More than half of our aggregate traffic goes to our websites’ Recycling Guide pages. This is clearly the information that residents are looking for first and foremost, so we recommend that cities focus most of their energy on creating a quality recycling guide. Your guide can also act as a gateway to providing more education. That’s why in our guides, we offer not just the basic information on what goes in which bin, but also simple, actionable tips on how to reduce and reuse, and why source reduction matters.
We are seeing only the beginning of what digital outreach can do for recycling programs. If we say that the effectiveness of educating the public has maxed out, and we stop trying to do better, then that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if we capitalize on the strengths of what current digital communications tools have to offer, I predict we will find that outreach still has a vast untapped potential to help us kickstart forward momentum and leave the current plateau behind. Effectively engaging the inhabitants of our digital world demands high-quality digital outreach. It’s time for the recycling and solid waste industry to step up to the challenge.
Emily Coven is the founder of Recyclist, a green technology company that builds cloud-based solutions to make solid waste program management easy. She can be reached at [email protected].
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Resource Recycling, Inc. If you have a subject you wish to cover in an op-ed, please send a short proposal to [email protected] for consideration.