Blue Bins Signal ТGreenerУ Future

The San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department is learning that park recycling is not a case of “build it and they will come.”

San Antonio parks staff designed the blue bins for the department's recycling program. Photo Courtesy of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department

Simply placing recycling bins in parks isn’t enough. The success of the program rests on an education and marketing push that begins before the placement of bins and continues throughout the implementation of the recycling initiative.

Beginning with a pilot program at one regional park in fiscal year 2010, the city’s recycling program has grown to 107 park locations, according to Clean and Green Operations Manager Krystal Strong, who oversees the program.

By the end of this fiscal year, recycling will be available at 74 percent of the city’s more than 14,000 acres of park.

Getting A Good Return

The challenge, however, has been in teaching park patrons how to properly recycle.

“Our biggest challenge is contamination, with food and pet waste getting mixed in with the aluminum cans, glass containers, and plastics that are recyclable,” Strong explains. “Initially we weren’t getting a good return on our efforts.”

To educate employees, the department collaborated with the city’s Solid Waste Department to bring in its recycling education coordinator for training sessions.

Early public-education efforts centered specifically on the pilot program, conducted in a large regional park in a neighborhood that had recently started automated residential recycling.

The department included a park recycling flier in English and Spanish in 8,000 recycling bins delivered to residents by the city’s Solid Waste Department.

The department also contracted with a private vendor, who used a three-wheeled bike with a large billboard promoting the recycling project, to travel through the park on high-volume weekend days and holidays.

Workers sort through the trash to make sure the recyclables are "clean". Photo Courtesy of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department

Known as a ped-ad, this advertising technique gave the cyclist the opportunity to talk to park patrons and hand out printed materials in English and Spanish, water bottles, and bracelets featuring the campaign: It’s Your Park--Recycle!

A Broader Scope

This effort proved helpful in the pilot program because of the limited venue. As the program expanded and a broader focus was needed, staff collaborated with the department’s Volunteer Services staff members to develop a group of volunteers to focus on recycling education throughout the parks designated for recycling bins.

Additionally, the department’s public-relations staff created a public-service video in both English and Spanish, which aired on the city’s public-access channel, as well as on area cable channels. The videos can also be viewed on the department’s website, YouTube, and its Facebook page.

A city councilman also helped by videotaping his own PSA in English and Spanish for use on his website, social media, and community meetings.

Articles were submitted to city council district newsletters, Friends of Parks newsletters, and neighborhood association newsletters.

Hitting It Hard

The next step was to ramp up recycling efforts during heavy park-usage events. One such event was the walk on Martin Luther King Day in January, which ended in a city park. Portable recycling bins were placed strategically throughout the park where thousands of parade participants gathered to hear dignitaries speak and enjoy entertainment.

Afterwards, staff members supplemented the effort by doing light sorting to salvage more of the recyclables that otherwise would have been thrown out as contaminated.

“We want to do what we can to increase our percentage of clean recyclables while we continue to educate patrons about how to properly recycle.” Strong explains. “It’s an ongoing process.”

The process continued on a weekend in April when patrons were allowed to camp in selected parks on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights prior to Easter Sunday in order to hold their spots for traditional family barbecues.

Trash accumulation in past years during the holiday has been extremely heavy, and cleanup of the parks the following Monday has been challenging for staff.

“We took the opportunity this year to have a series of community meetings prior to the holiday in which we talked with our … campers about the importance of recycling. We encouraged them to be good stewards and leave the parks as clean as they found them,” Strong says.

“We handed out recycling bags at each meeting, and our … recycling coordinator gave a brief presentation on proper recycling.”

A park patron drops a plastic bottle into a recycling bin. Photo Courtesy of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department

Also at those meetings participants filled out questionnaires that allowed the department to gather ideas on how to make recycling easier and more attractive to park patrons.

The meetings were advertised in both English- and Spanish-language newspapers, on two radio stations, on Facebook, on the department’s website, and with stories aired during several local TV newscasts.

Additionally, park staff and volunteers from Friends of Parks groups visited the areas where camping was permitted and conducted surveys on that same holiday weekend. Volunteers also assisted with handing out recycling bags and carrying the recycling message to the campers.

As a result, the numbers improved dramatically at Brackenridge Park, the most popular of the parks where holiday camping is permitted. Recycling increased from 800 pounds in 2011 to 1,200 pounds in 2012.

Trash, on the other hand, was reduced from 6.75 tons to 5.26 tons.

“It’s a trend in the right direction,” Strong says, “and we’re confident we can improve on those numbers with continued emphasis on education.”

Divvying Up The Dollars

With limited resources, staff found the budget to be another challenge in successfully implementing park recycling, so the members brainstormed creative ways to handle those costs.

The pilot program cost approximately $28,000, which included recycling receptacles, a central enclosure, and community outreach.

Staff designed recycling bins to complement the style of the existing trash receptacles. A local vendor fabricated the bins and staff installed them.

“This allows us to acquire the bins for a fraction of the cost we would have paid otherwise,” Strong notes. “And our staff designed them, knowing what works for us locally in terms of preventing vandalism and graffiti. They complement the existing trash cans at one-third the cost.”

The department was able to expand the program with the help of a $95,000 grant through the Solid Waste Department, which received a Texas Commission for Environmental Quality grant from the Alamo Area Council of Governments.

The bottom line is that recycling in parks begins with the installation of the recycling cans, but that’s just the start.

“It’s turned into a marathon, not a sprint,” Strong says. “We will continue to find creative ways to educate our park patrons not only about the importance of recycling, but how to do it properly. It’s all part of creating a sense of ownership and park stewardship in our community.”

Kelly Irvin is the public relations manager for the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department in Texas. She can be reached at .