California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

Innovations Case Studies

Summary: Recycling in Multi-family Dwellings

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Establishing a recycling program for residents of multifamily dwellings (MFDs) poses a challenge for many communities. (For purposes of this summary, an MFD is a building with more than four residential units.)

MFD residents can generate a large amount of a community's residential waste, and they often desire curbside recycling collection. Yet, these residents are frequently left out of community curbside recycling programs because:

  • Curbside programs for individual households are not suited to MFDs.
  • Private waste haulers, not local government, typically provide waste management services to MFDs.

Many MFD buildings were not designed with recycling in mind. MFDs typically have little space in individual units and in common areas for the collection and storage of recyclables.

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. (Multi-family 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, 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.

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

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

Communities can increase recycling rates in their MFDs by enacting requirements that residents recycle. They can require building management to provide recycling opportunities, develop programs that encourage resident and management recycling, and providing assistance with program design and education.

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. Apartment management can often reduce their total solid waste management costs if residents recycle enough to reduce the trash container size or collection frequency.

Because of the communal nature of most trash collection and billing systems at MFD complexes, it is difficult to pass savings on directly to those individual residents who contribute to reduced disposal. Rather, savings accrue to the complex’s management and may get passed on to all residents equally through reductions in rent or fees or foregone rent increases.

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 can often offset program costs and result in savings. Communities using contractors can gain savings by negotiating reduced contract costs, or structuring a payment system whereby they pay their contractors less per ton for recycling than trash.

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

Tips for Replication

  • Involve residents and management in program planning and implementation.
  • Provide waste reduction education and information to new residents when they first move into units.
  • Provide simple explanatory materials.
  • Use multiple means of getting the message out—including tenant meetings, newsletters, lease clauses, posters celebrating achievements, and direct mailings.
  • Make participation simple and convenient.
  • Encourage or reward resident participation.
  • Provide ongoing support to facilities management, including technical assistance and outreach materials.
  • Pay attention to the needs of your collection staff. Be open to letting workers create systems that work for them.  Listen... listen... listen!
  • Provide feedback.  Mail residents letters and talk to them.
  • Mandate waste reduction program availability and participation.
  • Require haulers to provide recycling service to MFDs.
  • Create a mechanism for encouraging owners or managers of buildings to comply with recycling requirements.
  • Show owners that they can realize big savings through recycling.
  • Produce educational materials using simple graphics.
  • Produce educational materials in multiple languages if some of the MFD residents do not speak English.
  • Be persistent.  Maintaining high diversion levels at multifamily homes requires ongoing efforts from recycling coordinators and building managers.


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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