10 Steps to An Effective Office Recycling Challenge

Read the article in Environmental Leader

Amy Marpman, Director, Recycling Services, Great Forest, Inc.

Published June 26, 2012

There’s nothing like a little friendly competition to get people motivated. Corporations can take a lesson from college campuses, where a growing number of challenges like Recyclemania are successfully getting students to compete to conserve and reduce waste.

As my colleague Sandra Robishaw says, “Office workers are not freshmen but enthusiasm for meaningful causes and the community spirit that exists on campuses can be recreated in an office setting with just a few changes for big results. And the competition can be used to promote other green behavior as well, along the lines of the new Campus Conservation Nationals, where students compete to reduce their school’s energy usage.”

The key to a successful recycling challenge is participation. On a college campus, there are many opportunities for group activities and volunteer participation. Getting that in an office setting is challenging because employees are busy with work, deadlines and meetings. However, the fact that corporate employees come to the same place every day, and are busy at their desks is a plus for face-to-face engagement, which is highly effective. So while campus competitions concentrate their efforts on large, public areas, outreach at corporate challenges should be focused on desk-side efforts as well as a few key common areas like the pantry, where workers gather.

Another difference – while college competitions pit one school against another, corporate challenges are internal, often with floors or departments competing against each other.

But whether the challenge is on a campus or at a corporation, the basic approach of messaging, measuring and benchmarking remains the same. Here are 10 easy steps to a successful office challenge.

#1. Set the length of competition.

Assess your resources and decide how long you want your challenge to be. We have observed that change can happen in 6 months or as little as 6 weeks.

#2. Set a realistic goal and a baseline to measure success.

Decide what you what to achieve and how you will be tracking results of the challenge. At the start of each competition, conduct a waste audit at all the participating offices and use that score as the baseline. One of the most common ways to judge success is to monitor the percentage of improvement from the baseline.

#3. Conduct a compliance check before the competition starts.

This can be done internally or by your sustainability consultants to ensure that all trash and recycling bins are properly labeled and placed in accessible locations for a recycling challenge. They should also replace outdated or confusing bin signage with simple, clear instructions.

#4. Launch the competition with an awareness campaign.

Introduce the competition and distribute easy-to-follow instructions to employees via email. Follow up with notices on employee boards, announcements in internal publications, or have a manager make an in-person announcement. Having a strong company leader show the way will send the message that the competition is important and will set the tone for employees. If possible, set up a website for the challenge filled with sustainability information and Q and As. For a more high tech approach, the website could even host an open forum on sustainability to gather feedback, and offer tracking of competition results. One corporate client customized their screensaver to show green tips during the competition period.

#5. Appoint green team leaders for each competing office, floor or department.

These team leaders are important as they are on the front lines and are the first to hear about problems or questions. They can provide feedback on the reactions of their colleagues to the competition, answer questions, and disseminate results and other information to keep their co-workers motivated.

#6. Monitor progress.

Over the length of the competition, your internal green team or sustainability consultants should conduct regular walk-throughs of the competing offices to monitor progress and see if recyclables are still being thrown in waste bins.

#7. Connect with employees.

Create a system to engage with employees on the regular walk-throughs to reward good recycling habits and correct mistakes. For example, leave “Thank you for recycling” notes on desks to acknowledge good desk-side recycling behavior.  We’ve noticed that interest in the competition evolves and expands with each walk-through. Employees will start asking more questions not just about recycling in general but also about off-site programs. Very soon, you will probably find groups of employees beginning to proactively bring forward issues they see as problems.

#8. Track results.

Send progress reports to green team leaders, who will be responsible for communicating the challenge results and motivating members.

#9. Announce winners and celebrate.

It could be something as simple as an email announcing the winners, or something more elaborate like a luncheon with prizes. We have found that employee contestants are usually not motivated by the prize itself.  Winning is nice but they usually just want to do the right thing. The competition gives them the opportunity to do just that.

#10. Examine results and conduct a follow-up survey.

Study the competition results to uncover insights into your company’s green programs. For example, you can find out which materials are most commonly not recycled and why. Perhaps it’s a lack of education or perhaps there are not enough signs. With this information, you can plan appropriate training sessions or modify your programs to get better results. Also, conduct a post-competition survey to find out what employees got out of the challenge. Did the competition increase awareness? You can also use the survey to plan future expansions of your sustainability efforts.

Corporate competitions can be short and simple with minimal outreach, or  more elaborate. While we have seen that results are always better with more communication and interaction, the outcomes have always been positive.

In the end, I have learned that the competition is merely a platform for action and interaction. The challenge reminds employees that they are empowered to make a difference. It provides opportunities to engage and communicate with employees, and offers valuable insights into why a company’s green programs are working or not working.

By adapting campus challenges, corporations can easily compete to conserve. Best of all, there are no losers. Everyone wins with a greener environment.

Amy Marpman is the director of recycling services at Great Forest Inc., a leader in sustainability consulting for over 20 years. Great Forest spearheads sustainability solutions and provides project management expertise to clients nationwide, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to educational institutions, hotels, retailers and property management companies.

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