California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) 

Innovations Case Studies

Summary: Serving Diverse Populations with Recycling

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Many California communities have diverse populations that include multi-ethnic residents residents who do not speak English or for whom English is not their first language, transient populations (students and tourists), low-income individuals and families, immigrants, senior citizens, and physically challenged residents.

Local governments can raise awareness of recycling programs and increase participation by designing outreach and programs with the community’s diversity in mind. This can be an important factor in reaching the 50 percent recycling rate required by the California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 (AB 939, Sher, Chapter 1095, Statutes of 1989).

In El Monte, California, the residential recycling rate increased from 6 percent in 1994 to 34 percent in 1998. Recognizing cultural differences, the city uses a variety of approaches to deliver its message. The recycling program uses bilingual waste auditors and follow-up recommendations in appropriate languages.

Monterey Park, San Jose, San Francisco, and Sunnyvale are four other California cities that are successfully reaching their diverse constituents.

Producing Multilingual Materials and Hiring Staff or Contractors

An increasing number of California residents are non English-speaking or speak very little English. El Monte, Monterey Park, San Jose, San Francisco, and Sunnyvale all produce outreach tools in two or more languages. These include brochures, posters, videos, public service announcements, recycling newsletters, and advertisements. Other tools include environmental shopping and recycling guides, stickers for residents’ recycling containers, refrigerator magnets, doorknob hangers, and recycling phone hotlines. Some items are specifically targeted for residents in multifamily buildings.

San Francisco offers a recycling guide to restaurants and hotels in English, Chinese, and Spanish. El Monte uses bilingual waste auditors to reach its diverse businesses and residents of multi-family units. Monterey Park displays trilingual education booths at various community and multi-cultural events.

Expanding Service to Reach the Under-served

In California, about 24 percent of all housing units are multifamily dwellings with five or more units. (In some cities, this percentage can be greater. For instance, 45 percent of San Francisco’s housing units are in multi-family units.) These residents are frequently left out of curbside recycling programs because private haulers, not local government, typically provide waste management services to multi-family dwellings.

This trend is changing as more communities expand recycling service to this sector. Cities may require haulers to provide the service or require building management to offer such services to their tenants.  San Jose and Sunnyvale provide recycling service to their multi-family dwellings.

Education and outreach are important for any recycling program. This is especially true in multi-family dwellings where resident turnover is high or where residents may be more likely to speak little or no English. Outreach is also critical in a building where managers do not have time or expertise to develop their own materials.

El Monte conducts extensive outreach to contact the 60 percent of its population that resides in rental units. The program includes:

  • Meeting with property managers/owners to help them implement recycling.
  • Calculating potential collection savings.
  • Helping to overcome space restrictions.
  • Providing bilingual brochures and signs.
  • Assisting property managers/owners negotiate with their haulers to facilitate recycling.

Communities can expand recycling services and outreach to hotels, restaurants, campuses, and public facilities. This will allow program planners to more easily reach transient populations such as tourists and students.

Keeping the Program Simple

The more complex a recycling program, the greater the possibility of confusion and system failure. This means there is a greater need for clear, concise outreach materials explaining the system.  Cities with large non-English speaking residents present a particular challenge. The Los Angeles recycling program is very simple: residents can place all their recyclables in a single 90-gallon container.

Providing Special Pickup Services

Physically challenged residents can more easily participate in recycling programs if they have special pickup services. San Francisco’s hauler provides special pickup services for variable fees based upon the distance its workers have to travel, whether or not they have to climb stairs, and other criteria.

Promoting Recycling in Schools

Classroom recycling education is important in areas of diversity. In many minority homes, school children are the only English speakers of the household. Kids can take recycling messages home.

Costs, Economics, and Benefits

In some communities, the recycling/solid waste coordinator incorporates outreach to diverse populations as a normal part of their outreach efforts. Other communities may hire a specialized diversity outreach coordinator.

Some communities may hire multilingual staff to handle in-house translations and audits and to answer questions by phone.

Translating written outreach materials into other languages typically adds 15 to 20 percent to the cost of production. Computer retailers also offer a variety of computer software translation programs.  However, some software may be unable to properly translate technical recycling terms. Communities may incur additional costs when producing and mailing outreach material in different languages.

Producing videos and public service announcements in different languages will cost approximately 40 to 50 percent more than the cost of the original version in English.

Tips for Replication

  • Allocate resources to address the unique situations among diverse populations.
  • Keep programs simple.
  • Produce and distribute multilingual education and outreach materials. Generating one brochure with a recycling message in multiple languages can help keep printing costs to a minimum.
  • Have multilingual staff members available to field phone calls.
  • Use bilingual “foot power” to get the recycling message out.
  • Visit people on site and help them solve their recycling-related problems.
  • Target specific cultural events within the community with multi-lingual outreach displays.
  • Perform waste audits and create a database to track the characteristics and special needs of each type of waste generator.
  • Stress the potential cost savings through recycling.
  • Encourage a diversity of citizens to participate in your recycling programs by making them feel that they are a part of the city.


Pursuant to contract (IWM-C8028) with the University of California at Santa Cruz for a series of 24 studies and summaries, the Institute for Local Self Reliance (Washington, D.C.) prepared this summary.

The statements and conclusions in this summary are those of the contractor and not necessarily those of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), its employees, or the State of California. In addition, the data in this report was provided by local sources but not independently verified. The State and its contractors make no warranty, express or implied, and assume no liability for the information contained in this text. Any mention of commercial products, companies, or processes shall not be construed as an endorsement of such products or processes.

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Last updated: October 5, 2015
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