New Zealand's Best Recyclers Now Get a Gold Star

It's visible to the whole neighborhood, which acts as a powerful incentive.

mother and child recycling

Jessie Casson / Getty Images

Even adults like getting gold stars once in a while. With this in mind, the recycling council of Christchurch, New Zealand, launched an initiative to encourage households to do better at recycling. Anyone who does an exceptionally good job at putting out the right items – and properly cleaned, too – gets a gold star added to their curbside recycling bin, visible for the whole neighborhood to see. Anyone who fails repeatedly to improve their recycling gets a warning letter before their bin is confiscated.

People love it. Recycling rates have improved significantly, with 80% of truck contents now being processed by sorters. This is a huge improvement over the past few months. During the COVID-19 lockdown earlier this year, the local EcoSort facility had to close temporarily because there was so much contamination and failure to sort properly, like not removing bottle lids and including thin plastic films, such as cheese wrappers. Other factors included more people working from home and doing extensive house purges. Recycling was collected but sent to landfill and residents were asked not to hoard items at home to avoid a public health risk.

Ross Trotter, the city's Resource Recovery manager, said that contamination is a frustrating issue. Pre-COVID, Christchurch was doing much better, with 99% of trucks able to sort their contents, so he knew residents were capable of doing better. He opted to use positive reinforcement to get back to that point, telling the Guardian:

"We thought it was important that rather than being negative all the time and telling them what they can’t do let's give them some positive reinforcement, and give them a gold sticker reward – something that other residents can see 'hey, they’re a great recycler.' And it’s amazing the number of people that come to us and say, 'How do I get one of those stickers?'"

The stars and warning letters are given out at random by a team of spot-checkers that's been making its way through Christchurch since January 2020, with a three-month break during New Zealand's Level 4 lockdown from late March till early June. Only those bins that are 100% correct receive stars.

Trotter told Mary Jo DiLonardo of Treehugger that 176,528 bins have been checked so far this year, with nearly 50,000 gold stars issued. Roughly 130,000 households have received "targeted information" to improve their recycling practices. As the Guardian reports, "The threat of public shaming was usually enough for residents to address the problem," and some of these homeowners have since earned gold stars for reversing their practices. 

For 246 households, however, multiple warnings weren't enough and their bins were confiscated. The owners had to go to the council office to reclaim their bins and sign a form agreeing to do a better job at sorting their recycling.

Olivia Erskine, a resident of Christchurch, told Treehugger that her recycling bin has not yet been spot-checked, but she has heard about the initiative and thinks it's a good idea. 

"People were pretty disgusting during COVID times, as we were in full lockdown for a long time. In general I think a lot of New Zealanders are clueless around the specifics of recycling. We only have three household bins – 1 yellow for recycling, 1 green for food waste, and 1 red for rubbish. We don't have a household process of separating recycling (like in Canada in terms of separating cardboard or bottles etc). I think in general there's a lot of misinterpretation and people get very lazy, [so this initiative] holds people accountable for doing it properly."

She does think there should be a greater emphasis on refillable and reusable containers to reduce the total amount of recyclables put out on the curb. New Zealand has made some progress in this area (there are no single-use plastic bags in supermarkets, Erskine says), but otherwise the country is lagging. "It would just be better overall if people were not using plastic, [if they were] doing more refilling and not buying as many one-off items in lots of packaging."

With additional reporting by Mary Jo DiLonardo

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