RUBBERMAID COMMERCIAL PRODUCTS
Increasing recycling habits in the workplace.
Service Model & Strategy
Rubbermaid Commercial Products (RCP) asked IN2 to design a new service that would improve the recycling rates in commercial office towers. We got to take on one of the world’s wicked problems – recycling – and, by focusing on the daily experiences of office workers, show significant improvement in how much of the offices’ waste they recycled.
Strategy & Case Study
This project touches on some big themes: creating new business and service models, sustainability, and changing people’s behavior. This is change-the-world stuff. Getting there also contained a big dose of the not-so-glamorous side of innovation. We had to get dirty to help clean this one up.
Among other things, RCP sells commercial waste receptacles (which is another way of saying ‘the trash cans and recycling bins you use at work’). Of course, they already had plenty of receptacles in their portfolio, so they didn’t need another one. Instead, to boost sales, RCP needed to think outside the (garbage) box, and they asked IN2 to discover new opportunities and test new ideas for an interesting hypothesis.
Large office buildings spend a lot of money to have their trash hauled off. However, because the material has reuse value, they pay less money to recycle their waste than to send it to a landfill. If we could figure out a way to improve recycling rates, everyone would win. It would make life easier for everyday users, RCP’s customers would save money, RCP would sell more recycling bins, and this would create a positive impact on the environment. In other words, it’s a win at the Triple Bottom Line (business, customer, environment).
What could we do to get people to throw more stuff in the recycling bin and less in the trash can? And can you make sure what gets in there is stuff they can actually recycle?
Lack of recycling is a huge problem...
First, let’s talk about scale. IN2 is based in Dallas, Texas, so we’ll start there. In Dallas, there are over 30 office buildings over ten stories tall, totaling over 1,200 stories. It is common for each tenant to have their own recycling program, which means there are over a thousand different systems in the tall buildings in Dallas alone.
New York City has an estimated 6,100 buildings, 115,000 floors, and up to 3 million office workers. If you keep going across the nation and world, it becomes clear that this is a massive issue.
Worse, the vast majority of waste gets sent to the landfill. A low percentage of trash is diverted for recycling. And much of that is contaminated by other trash, which makes it that much harder for the recycler to operate efficiently. In fact, if a shipment contains more than 10% contamination, the whole thing is typically sent to the landfill.
This starts to get really interesting when you talk to some of the people that participate in the system. We believers that the best way to find new opportunities is through a deep-dive connection to individual user’s stories. Behaviors lead to insights, which roll into new frameworks to analyze the status quo.
For this project, we visited 5 office buildings in Dallas and Austin and met with 45 participants. They told us about their habits and showed us how they threw away their trash. This led to some surprising takeaways, and we heard things like this:
"They don't pay me to throw away my trash"
"I'm not sure if I can recycle that"
"It's just one bottle..."
Let’s take these in order. At face value, they seem a little silly. You don’t recycle because they don’t pay you to? Come on. However, when you look a little deeper, you can empathize. As we studied these workspaces, we saw that trash cans were always at hand, but recycling bins were often far away. In the busy workday, maybe you don’t always have time to get up, go down the hall, and around the corner just to throw stuff away. You’re trying to succeed at your job, and this can add a lot of distraction.
And grown-ups don’t know how to recycle? Don’t they teach that in elementary school? Actually, they may not, or not well enough. People honestly are not sure what they can recycle, and since they feel like they’re supposed to already know, they’re often embarrassed to ask. More, each city and municipality accepts different materials, and you may never hear the specifics at your office.
Then, the real disconnect. You’re busy and distracted, and you’re not sure if you can recycle the coffee cup you just finished. In a split-second decision, what do you do? One cup is no big deal, right?
At any given moment, millions of people could be making the same decision: trash or recycle? At scale, it’s not just one cup at all. That meant that to measure the impact of our potential solutions, we’d have to show the real nature of the problem. That meant getting dirty. We had to sort and measure the real trash. Our team rolled up our sleeves and analyzed the current recycling rate, as well as how many recyclables made it into the trash – and vice versa.
What we found was not great: in one site, only 11% of all waste went to recycling, and the others were not much better. Plus, much of the recycling was over-contaminated with trash and likely to be rejected.
Armed with a clear understanding of the current state, we worked with RCP to convert what we learned into new ideas to make things better. One helpful tool we built was a Journey Map, showing how waste moved through the system. There are a surprising number of participants and influencers involved, each of whom could help improve the recycling rate.
Then we went back to test our thinking in a real setting (and, of course, got dirty to measure the impacts).
Cleaning It Up
In the end, we were successful in creating a campaign for 'recycling at work'. There were a few key deliverables within this system, including trash can labeling systems, educational pamphlets, strategic emails, designated recycling advocates, and informational presentations.
The results were astounding. Educating people on what they should do and why it mattered – and then giving them the right tools to do it – led to a huge improvement. In our worst testing site, the rate jumped from 11% of waste recycled to 57%! In another site, contamination fell by 22% while total recycling went up dramatically. Other sites showed significant progress as well.
This project shows the power of the innovation process. When you start with a good question and base solutions on people’s stories, you can create really impactful change. Don’t skip any steps – and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty!