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12 Jan 2016

How Do We Create Change? Insights from the Blue Box Recycling Program

Posted by Michael Keating

By Eric Hellman

This is the first in a series of articles on how we can create change more effectively by my associate, Eric Hellman, co-founder of the Recycling Council of Ontario and the Blue Box, and co-author of Leadership from Within.

Many people have asked over the years, “What made the Blue Box so successful?” Why did it become the model for programs not only across Ontario, but in hundreds of cities, provinces, states and countries around the world, and even a symbol of recycling? As someone who was there at its inception, I’d like to offer some thoughts and experiences on what may have contributed to its success.

In nature, the seed is essential to creating the plant. It contains the DNA that guides its growth and development. I’ve come to believe the same is also true in human-led development: the core ideas, intentions and motivations behind our projects guide the outcomes.

With the Blue Box, its success was more than simply the result of a well-designed curbside collection, catchy marketing slogan or colourful container. For me, it was the outcome of some significant shifts in thinking – in what people really wanted and needed – that started it on the road to what it has become today.

In the Beginning: “We Don’t Believe Most People will Recycle”

The first “blue box” recycling program was launched in Kitchener, Ontario, in the fall of 1981. A collaboration between Laidlaw Waste Systems (the City’s garbage contractor) and Resource Integration Systems or RIS Ltd. (a recycling consulting company), it began as a pilot project in a test area of 1,100 homes. The goal was to see if we could create a sustainable program in which large numbers of people would participate, and generate enough income to make it financially worthwhile.

To understand the purpose of the program, it’s important to consider the state of recycling in the early 1980s. Across Ontario, there were a few dozen local recycling programs, mostly drop-off depots for glass, metal and newspapers, plus some local curbside newspaper collections. However, programs continually started and stopped because of unstable markets for materials. And this was but one part of a cycle of problems, in which:

1) Manufacturers didn’t believe they could get a steady stream of quality recyclable materials from municipalities and the public. Therefore they didn’t invest in recycling plants, and paid low or inconsistent prices for what they did buy.

2) Without steady markets, cities and collection companies weren’t assured of good revenues for materials. Thus programs were started and stopped as prices rose and fell.

3) Governments didn’t believe most people would recycle because while public opinion surveys found 80-90 per cent of people said they wanted to recycle, only about 5 per cent used local depots. Government officials interpreted this as people aren’t telling the truth.

4) The public had concluded that government and industry didn’t care, because of the inconsistent nature of recycling programs, so people didn’t participate regularly.

This negative feedback loop kept recycling from growing. And everyone was waiting for someone else to change.


Eric Hellman,blue box

Eric Hellman

Seeing Things Differently

At RIS Ltd., where I was a partner, we interpreted the surveys differently. As recyclers ourselves, we believed most people DID want to recycle – but weren’t doing so because local programs were not convenient or consistent. We further believed that we could break the negative loop by:

1) demonstrating that people would participate, if given the right kind of program;

2) growing participation through strong education, and providing convenient, sustainable collection;

3) delivering a steady supply of good quality recyclable materials to industry; and thereby

4) gaining stable prices, to make municipal collections financially viable.

Up to this time, we had favoured a non-profit approach to recycling. Our experience had been that most companies put private gain ahead of public good, and we came to see business as ‘the opposition.’ However, with Laidlaw, our thinking shifted. Part of this came from my past relationship with them (while at university in the area). More importantly, this company seemed willing to go beyond pure self-interest to create a program that would truly benefit the municipality, the public, the environment and themselves.

The six-month demonstration program we designed for Laidlaw was built around multiple factors: a test area that demographically represented the city as a whole (to ensure future viability if the program went citywide); an ongoing education program to engage the public, politicians and the media; recycling of four different materials; testing of different household collection containers, including a “blue box”; and assurance to residents that this program would continue, regardless of changes in market prices.


Impacts of the Program

From day one, the program was a success. It grew from a six-month pilot into a citywide program with over 80 per cent participation. Laidlaw then launched it in other communities, such as Mississauga. At the same time, RIS worked with government, industry and non-profit organizations such as the Recycling Council of Ontario and Pollution Probe to change provincial legislation for recycling. The Ontario government eventually decided on the Blue Box as its model for local communities, and waste producers were asked to partner in financing the rollout of the program across the province. Over a 10-year period, the negative feedback loop had been turned around and the landscape for municipal recycling transformed.

When the Blue Box was first launched, less than 1 per cent of municipal waste across Ontario was being collected for recycling. Thirty years later, approximately 25 per cent of all municipal waste is now being recycled (or composted). In some municipalities, the figure is over 60 per cent. Back then, waste managers said those figures were impossible. Recycling was not even considered in the waste management master plans for major cities like Toronto. Today, waste managers not only plan for it but municipalities and citizens actively look for ways to make it grow.


“Why did the Blue Box succeed, when other programs didn’t?”

Prior to our pilot program, numerous curbside collections existed or had been tried across Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere. Other programs had even used coloured collection boxes or containers for in-home separation. So why did the “Blue Box” become the model or symbol for recycling in so many places?

Ultimately, there will be many reasons. But for me, the seeds for its success lay in the vision, values and shifts in thinking that created that first demonstration program. Here are some of them:

1) Our goal wasn’t to just start one recycling program. We wanted to create a model for sustainable recycling anywhere, and break the loop of inaction that was holding it back.

2) We didn’t break that loop by regulating, forcing or pushing people to change. It was done through finding people with shared values, developing a common vision, then engaging the public, government and industry by creating a program in which they wanted to participate.

3) To make it work, those of us who initiated the change also had to shift some of our own core beliefs and behaviours. This ranged from RIS choosing to work with private business (instead of opposing it), to Laidlaw President Ron Murray who believed that making money from collecting garbage ‘didn’t ultimately make sense’ but that recycling did, so he invested in the pilot program.

4) We initiated the change we wanted to see in the world, rather than waiting for others to do it. Our goal was to create a winning situation, environmentally, economically, socially and politically, for people across all sectors of society.

5) Our launch phrase, “You can make a difference,” wasn’t just a marketing slogan. It was a statement of belief and purpose, which came out of what truly mattered to us and what we thought others wanted and valued too. Because it spoke to people, it motivated them to act. It not only became the slogan for most programs across the province but it helped launch the term “making a difference” into common usage around the world.

Do the beliefs, values and approaches behind our projects guide their eventual outcomes? I now believe they do. And for me, the success of the Blue Box was a demonstration of just that.


Eric Hellman is a communications coach and change consultant, living in Vancouver, B.C. If you have comments or questions, please post them below, email him at erichellman@rogers.com or see his website at www.erichellman.com.

For the full story of how the program began see, Genesis of the Blue Box – and Insights for Future Change.

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One Response to “How Do We Create Change? Insights from the Blue Box Recycling Program”

  1. […] also had a taste of this in the creation of the Blue Box. Before we launched, we could feel the deep desire of people to contribute to the environment. This […]