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Engaging College Students in Municipal Recycling Programs

Running a municipal recycling awareness program is always a challenge.  Residents are increasingly difficult to reach due to busy schedules, and accessibility is reduced thanks to the wide range of communication channels they use. Meanwhile, your landfill is beyond capacity and special waste collection events are under-attended. 

Perhaps it’s time to focus some attention on the colleges and universities in your area and engage college students in municipal recycling programs. 

Granted, working with college students can sound like more trouble than it’s worth, but there are several reasons why you should consider developing some initiatives in that area.

shutterstock_121007509.jpgFirst, today’s college students are part of the Millennial generation, and while this group is notorious for their short attention spans, they are also famous for banding together en masse to support worthy social causes.  What can be more worthy than saving our environment?

Also, school administrations can be powerful allies in both the promotion and execution of college or university-based initiatives.  By helping to integrate recycling systems into the school’s day-to-day operations, colleges and universities can define best practices and set expectations for student compliance.

Finally, today’s college students will be managing households in the very near future. By setting them up to value and adopt regular recycling habits now, you will continue to see returns over time as they age and influence their spouses, children and neighbors.  Some colleges are even expanding their zero waste programs off-campus and becoming thought leaders in the community at large.

Understanding the Millennial Mindset:

In order to engage your student community, it’s important to understand how they operate.  One key differentiator between young Millennials and residents in older demographics is the way they utilize technology. The other is their social nature.

We’ve all heard that young Millennials spend a lot of time on their smartphones, and the numbers drive home how pervasive this technology really is. Recent studies show that Millennials prefer texting over talking, are two times more likely to use mobile devices to access the internet for information, and 41% of them have either abandoned the landline or have never had one. Smartphones are so central to their social interactions that four out of five Millennials sleep with or next to their smartphones [Source: Forbes].

As a result, your college outreach strategy must center on mobile.  For the most part, this means accessing them via social media. Text messaging is thought to be antiquated, but it is also an option. Apps are another key approach.  Downloading an app requires effort (the act of clicking and installing) and desire for the service provided. This act of opting-in results in a powerful psychological connection which, in turn, typically results in high engagement rates. In 2015, college-aged students spent an average of 90.6 hours a month engaging with apps on their smartphones, plus another 34.7 hours each month on a tablet [Source: Business of Apps].

In the same way that their technology revolves around social media, Millennial college culture is also driven by group-centric activities, participation in social causes, and a need to feel like they belong.  They were raised to have a can-do attitude, community spirit and believe they can make a difference. These traits make them ideal targets for recycling initiatives.

We’ll be looking at individual strategy and tactical ideas in later blog posts, but for now, the following checklist will help get you started:

  • Use social media: Make sure your promotions have a social media component, and have resources available to respond to questions in a timely manner.
  • Be authentic: Millennials do not like to be talked down to, and they are highly sensitive to inauthenticity.
  • Don’t “Speak the Lingo”: Unless you are a native Millennial marketer and understand the nuances of their slang, just keep the tone neutral and the language simple.
  • Engage the group: Create promotions that encourage students to create their own groups and work together. Not only will this make your programs more effective, but they’ll take initiative and build on what you’ve started.
  • Give them the tools they need: And then get out of their way.
  • Reward them for good behavior: Millennials like to know when they’ve done a good job.
  • Appeal to their sense of social justice: Today’s students care about the environment and each other. Show them how their activities make the world a better place, explain how to do it, and then watch them run with it.

Given their high levels of sociability, social activism, concern for the environment and accessibility through digital channels, today’s college students are a great place to building a widespread recycling awareness program that will last well into their next life-cycles. 

Watch this space as we delve further into this topic to look at best-practices, tactics and strategies to make this energetic demographic an essential part of your municipal recycling outreach program’s success.

For more information about Millennial recycling habits at colleges and how you can target them:


logo-green.png About Recycle Coach: Recycle Coach specializes in digital solutions for municipal and private waste management services to effectively educate and engage residents. Our technology platforms for web, mobile, and digital assistants focus on education and encouragement to help residents to be better recyclers, with the goal of inspiring positive and lasting change in communities around the world. It is our constant innovation and scalability of services that allow us to meet the needs of over 3000 communities across the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and more.  

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