General Information


Nationally, approximately 16 percent of all housing units are in structures with five or more units. The proportion is much higher in California–approximately 24 percent. Furthermore, some communities have an even greater proportion of their housing units in multifamily structures. Approximately 45 percent of housing units in San Francisco, 34 percent of Los Angeles units, and 29 percent of units in San Diego are in buildings with five or more units.

Despite these obstacles, communities can increase recycling rates in their MFDs by requiring that building management provide recycling opportunities, by developing programs that encourage resident and management recycling, and by providing assistance with program design and education.

In general, waste diversion rates in MFD recycling programs are lower than in those serving single-family homes. A recent study of municipal MFD recycling programs reported the average program diverted 15 percent of residents’ waste from disposal through recycling. Only 11 of the 40 communities studied achieved MFD recycling rates of more than 20 percent. (Multifamily Recycling: Costs, Diversion, and Program Characteristics, U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1999.)

While the results of this study are typical of MFD recycling rates, they do not show the possibilities. Numerous communities and individual buildings and complexes have surpassed 30 percent, 40 percent, and even 50 percent waste diversion levels. For example:

  • The Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority achieved a 29 percent waste diversion rate in its MFDs during 1999.
  • At the Richmond, a 121-unit, 23-floor condominium on the East Side of New York City, residents recycle approximately 46 percent of their discards.
  • Leisure World in Laguna Hills and Blossom Hill Estates in San Jose–two California MFD complexes-report 50 percent recycling rates.

There is no single model for a successful MFD recycling program. Variations in building size, layout, resident characteristics, landscaping, and trash disposal systems require unique arrangements to suit specific sites. For example, some MFD recycling programs collect both recyclables and yard debris. Others collect only recyclables. Some require residents to deliver materials to a central location. Others provide collection from doorways or at curbs. In general, successful programs provide residents with the convenience of curbside collection while fitting into existing waste management systems.

This information on recycling programs and policies will help jurisdictions encourage recycling in their multifamily dwellings. It presents examples and highlights from existing efforts across the United States. Individual profiles feature the multifamily recycling programs in the California communities of Central Costa Contra County, Davis, and Malibu.

Program Characteristics

Instituting an MFD recycling program requires planning and continuing follow-up. Program elements include:

  • Conducting waste and site assessments.
  • Identifying and enlisting participation of key players.
  • Implementing an outreach and education plan.
  • Determining what materials to collect.
  • Designing a collection system.
  • Monitoring progress and providing feedback to program participants.

Waste and Site Assessment

Waste assessments provide baseline information about what is in the waste stream at typical MFD units, and they can help identify recyclables generated at buildings with established programs. The data is helpful when identifying materials to target for collection. Assessments can also help determine the best size for recycling containers and/or provide insight into needed program refinements.

A site assessment can identify the location of trash collection areas, the volume of trash containers, and their collection frequency. It can also highlight potential areas for recycling collection and storage and note any problems with the current system (such as overflowing trash containers or odor problems). Ideally, every building or complex should have a site assessment. To assist MFD management in the assessment process, city/county recycling staff may develop and distribute a simple site assessment guide and/or form.

For example, Davis, Calif., requires the owner or management of each MFD complex to assess the site and submit a recycling plan. The city developed a simple form, “Recycling Collection Site Plan,” that managers can use to supply the required information. Managers report the number of trash and recycling containers on site and provide sketches of collection areas and their locations within the complexes.

Key Players

Participation of residents, building management, maintenance staff, and trash and/or recycling haulers is critical to a successful MFD recycling program. Including each group in the planning process can help them accept the program. Furthermore, each group may have specific knowledge that can improve a program. For example, residents may suggest placing additional recycling containers near trash bins that often get overfilled. Haulers familiar with local markets can help determine which materials to collect and how they must be sorted.

Outreach and Education

Education is an important tool to encourage participation in any waste reduction program. Recycling education messages should address both the “hows” and “whys” of recycling, be easy to understand, and be repeated often.

Educational programs are necessary to provide residents with the knowledge to recycle correctly. Some people lack the necessary knowledge and skill to recycle even though they may want to do so. However, knowing how to recycle may not be enough for some residents. Research has indicated that individuals who connect recycling with the larger issues of resource conservation and environmental protection are more motivated to participate in recycling and reuse programs.

Recycling messages should be easy to understand. California has a high percentage of residents who are non-English-speaking or who speak English as a second language. To address language barriers, communities may produce outreach materials in multiple languages or use illustrations of materials that can be recycled.

For example, El Monte, Calif., uses bilingual waste auditors to reach residents of multifamily units. The city distributes a brochure and a poster with text in both English and Spanish, side by side, to encourage residents of multifamily buildings to recycle. It has also released several bilingual local public service announcements on recycling.

Portland, Oreg., has produced outreach materials in ten different languages. Recycling officials selected English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Bosnian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Cambodian, and Laotian based on a survey of highly used languages in Portland.

Because MFDs have higher turnover rates than single-family homes, education efforts must be continual and more intensive. Some communities use on-site representatives to distribute information to new residents, or they ask building managers to distribute information when residents sign leases. Others distribute recycling information to MFD residents several times a year.

The City of Mountain View, Calif., uses MFD resident volunteers to spread recycling messages through its “Recycling Leader” program. Recycling Leaders distribute educational materials and serve as recycling advocates in their buildings. Three times a year, the City of El Monte mails a recycling newsletter to all residents of multifamily units.

Determining Which Materials to Collect

Waste characterization, local markets, and program convenience can influence decisions about the materials collected. Obviously, programs that target more materials have the potential to reach higher diversion levels. A waste characterization study or survey can help communities identify materials that make up a large proportion of waste disposed.

If local markets exist, communities may consider adding these materials to programs if they are not currently accepted. They can also educate residents about existing recycling opportunities. For example, a 1998 survey revealed that while 84 percent of respondents said their MFD facility produces green waste, only approximately one-third divert it from disposal. (Central Contra Costa [Calif.] Solid Waste Authority.)

The Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority is seeking to increase use of its MFD green waste collection program.

Allowing residents to commingle recyclables can enhance convenience and participation. Policy decisions about acceptable materials should incorporate the requirements of local processors and try to balance it with the goal of accepting as many materials as possible.

Determining a Collection System

Communities and complexes use many types of containers for collecting recyclables at MFDs.

Some provide individual containers to each apartment and others use centralized containers for the entire building. Large complexes often establish multiple collection stations. Typical locations for collection stations include laundry rooms, mail rooms, trash rooms, next to outside trash dumpsters, and parking garages.

Many MFD units are too small to accommodate the 14- to 20-gallon recycling bins often used in single-family curbside recycling programs. In response to this problem, some manufacturers produce small recycling collection containers designed to fit under sinks or in other small spaces. For MFDs in Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority service areas, Valley Waste Management provides containers for storage and transport of recyclables from individual units.

Complex and/or building layout can affect the choice of containers to use for collecting recyclables. Cities/counties may consider allowing residents of townhouse, condominium, and garden-style apartment complexes-where each unit has curb access-to participate in their single-family curbside collection programs.

High-rise buildings present a challenge for recycling planners. Older buildings often do not have sufficient space for recycling collection containers on each floor or for storing large quantities of recyclables between collections. Some buildings have specialized recycling systems with converted trash chutes to overcome space constraints.

For example, the 187-unit high-rise Commodore Club in Key Biscayne, Fla., uses a chute for trash and recyclables. Computer controls ensure that source-separated materials drop into the proper receptacle. This system allows residents to deliver both trash and recyclables to the same place.

The Syracuse Housing Authority in Syracuse, N.Y., has brought the convenience of curbside service to some of its public housing residents. Where space allows, residents receive door-to-door pickup of both trash and recyclables. In some high-rises, residents receive door-to-door pickup of recyclables but must bring trash to a chute, which empties into a basement compactor.

Collection containers do not have to be elaborate but they must be well marked. Dumpsters, carts, and cardboard boxes work well. Color-coding containers can help residents differentiate trash containers from those for recyclables. For example, Central Contra Costa uses color-coded carts for collection of recyclables at many of its MFD complexes. The Solid Waste Authority’s collection contractors provide burgundy carts for recyclables, green carts for yard debris, and blue carts for trash.

Collection of recyclables can be performed by MFD complex trash haulers, by a separate recycling hauler, or by complex staff. Collection of recyclables should be frequent enough to prevent containers from overflowing or developing odors.

Monitoring and Feedback

Monitoring program success and providing feedback to residents helps them understand that their efforts do indeed make a difference. For example, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the city requires haulers to report monthly pickup information for each account served. The city’s contracted recycling company, Saint Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium, distributes posters that building managers can use to graph these data and display recycling achievements. Communicating successes and failures to building management in a timely manner can alert them to potential difficulties. This will help them solve problems before low participation or contamination jeopardize program viability.

In East Orange, N. J., MFD recycling collection staff members note any decreases in materials recovered and increases in contamination at buildings on an ongoing basis. When collection staff members report problems, the city works with building management to rectify the problem. Communication with MFD residents and managers can help community planners improve recycling programs and outreach efforts.

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

In most communities, MFD solid waste service costs are based on container size and collection frequency. Many haulers (both public and private) collect recyclables and/or yard debris at a lower cost than collection and disposal of an equal volume of trash. Other haulers provide recycling and yard debris collection to their trash customers at no additional cost.

For example, San Jose, Calif., charges MFDs for trash service and provides recycling and yard debris collection at no additional cost. One area MFD complex, Blossom Hill Estates, avoided almost $60,000 in trash disposal fees in 1997 through recycling and composting. In many cases, the community or hauler provides collection carts and bins. Apartment management can often reduce their total solid waste management costs if residents recycle enough to reduce needed trash container size or collection frequency.

The Commodore Club in Key Biscayne, Fla., reduced trash collection and disposal costs after implementing its recycling program. Building management saves approximately $1,600 per year on waste management costs.

Because of the communal nature of most trash collection and billing systems at MFD complexes, it is difficult to pass savings directly on to those residents reducing disposal. The complex management may pass savings on to all residents equally through reductions in rent or fees, or through foregone rent increases.

Some complexes have developed systems of economic penalties to encourage recycling by individual tenants. For example, if the management at Blossom Hills Estates in San Jose, Calif., finds a lot of recyclables in trash from a particular household and the household does not begin to comply with the recycling program, the complex can fine the residents $30.

Community costs for MFD recycling programs vary according to whether the community provides services directly or through a contract or franchise. Typical costs for MFD recycling services can include those for equipment, labor, transportation, contracts, education, advertising, and administration. Tip fees are also a cost. Some communities require contracted and/or franchised haulers to provide equipment and conduct outreach efforts.

Revenues from the sale of recyclables and avoided disposal costs often defray program costs. For example, East Orange, N. J., provides trash and recycling services to its 6,236 MFD households for less than it would pay for trash collection alone. Reduced tip fees offset increased costs of the city’s recycling collection program. The city pays no tip fee for recyclables, while trash disposal tip fees average nearly $75 per ton.

Communities using contractors can reap benefits from these savings by negotiating reduced contract costs. They can use a system where their contractors pay less per ton for recycling than for trash.

Communities may fund MFD recycling efforts through trash or recycling service fees, the tax base, and/or franchise fees. Some communities also receive revenue from the sale of recyclables.

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