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Why is it so hard to get your staff to recycle?

Updated: Mar 22

If only we had a euro for every time we are asked this question!

We visit a lot of hotels during the course of our work, yet personally I haven't come across one that doesn't have this problem. Every time I lift a bin lid, I see a mix of different waste types that have all been discarded together. Whether it's paper tissues mixed in with plastic, plastic bottles mixed in with general waste or food packaging mixed in with organic waste, there is always something contaminating the segregated waste streams.

Aside from being quite infuriating for the management and staff that DO separate waste properly, more recently it is becoming intolerable for the waste collection companies.

Fed up of seeing waste being incorrectly disposed of, many are refusing to take waste bins if the contents haven't been properly separately and we've even heard of instances where waste collection companies have emptied entire contents over the parking area or delivery area of a hotel or shopping centre and staff have been forced to separate the waste so that it can be taken away.

The latter is probably the most effective way of getting engagement although no-one really wants to get to that stage.

The truth is, there are a lot of reasons why staff don't separate waste correctly.

Habit. In many businesses the staff have been in their positions for 20 or 30 years, they never needed to separate waste previously and getting them to remember to do things differently is a constant challenge.

Convenience. Staff in the hospitality sector are normally always busy. If recycling bins are not within easy reach, it is very tempting to discard of everything together in the nearest usable waste-bin regardless of policies.

Confusion. There are so many different types of waste nowadays and not all of them can be recycled. Plastic is a perfect example of this. There are 7 types of plastic resins, but it is usually only resins #1, #2 and #4 that are widely accepted for recycling in many destinations.

What should they do when a product is made from mixed materials? For example, 99% of takeaway coffee cups are made from paper but lined with plastic. Whilst technology exists to separate these layers it is expensive, so takeaway cups are usually incinerated or landfilled no matter which waste stream they entered in the first place. Most staff we have spoken to put them in with paper recycling, whereas in actual fact they should really go in general waste.

Wish-Cycling. This describes the phenomena of people putting items into the recycling bin because they REALLY WANT them to be recycled, without knowing for certain if these items CAN be recycled or not. It stems from a good intention but it causes issues at the waste separation plant. If one waste stream such as plastic is contaminated because lots of other non-recyclable products have been disposed of in the same bin, they might all end up in landfill or incineration.

Pointless. Many people we speak to that have taken the time to separate waste are concerned to see that a waste collection truck comes along and empties the contents of all recycling bins into one truck. This makes them believe that separating waste is pointless. However, many trucks do take the waste to Mixed Recycling Facilities (MIRFs) where waste is then sorted either with technology or by hand or both. Even if this is not the case, getting staff into the habit of separation is always recommended because at some point in time, the municipality probably will start to collect segregated waste. This puts you ahead of the curve and you can avoid fines or penalties that may result from not properly separating your waste.

Inconsistency. In some countries such as the UK for example, there are different rules for waste separation in each municipal area. If people live in one municipal area but their workplace is in another, it is easy to see how this inconsistency can cause confusion and lead to waste being deposited incorrectly.

So, taking all of this into consideration, what can you do in your hotel to increase engagement with correct waste separation?

There are a number of different approaches to engage your staff with this, and you might find that a mix of the following suggestions works well. We always recommend trialling an approach first before you roll it out across the whole hotel. Some of the suggestions below are our ideas, others are ideas that we have seen working well in different hotels. If you have other ideas or best practices that have worked for you, we'd love to hear about them.

Reduce unnecessary waste in the first place. On a recent hotel visit in the Canary Islands the hotel staff had identified that the plastic bin was the first to fill and they would quickly run out of space which led to some plastic items being placed into other bins. Our first suggestion in this case is to look at the items in the bin and identify whether they are really necessary. This particular hotel was using hundreds of plastic water bottles of varying sizes between 500ml and 5 litres every day. These take up a lot of space so our first course of action would be to identify opportunities to implement on-site water refills. Not only would this save a considerable amount of money associated with purchasing bottled water, it would reduce transport emissions associated with the delivery and removal of water bottles, it would reduce refrigeration and storage requirements and they could remove at least 3 large waste bins from the waste collection area which is already tight for space. Lots of wins here.

Size and Placement of Bins. This is really important if you want to make it easy for staff to do the right thing, especially in a busy kitchen and other back of house areas. A good way to go about this is to do a "waste audit" of each bin in all operational areas to identify where mistakes are happening and what kind of contamination seems to be the most common. Once you know this, you might decide to add more bins for certain waste types in certain areas, or increase the size of the bins so that they are not quickly full as this can mean staff will find the nearest other bin even if it is the wrong one. Maybe bins in operational areas be emptied more regularly to facilitate correct recycling.

Colour Coded Bins and Signage. If your country uses colour coded bins, make sure that you are replicating this system in and around the hotel as this can help with consistency and prevent confusion. If the municipality collects plastic in yellow bins and paper/cardboard in blue bins, follow this example. We have been in many hotels where they don't have enough bins, or bins are broken and have been substituted with other colours. Despite clear signage it is very hard for staff working in busy situations to adjust when they have become so accustomed to the colours.

Visualisation of Consequences

There was a fascinating study undertaken in an office building to understand whether certain stimuli such as "pledges" or "visualising the consequences of plastic pollution on marine animals and environments" would lead to waste reduction and better waste separation at the point of disposal.

The findings of the study provide an interesting behavioural insight into the effectiveness of both approaches which could be extended to staff and guest areas.

Whilst images that convey negative impacts may work well back of house, it is unlikely that a hotel will want to replicate this in public facing areas, so our fabulous TWP designer Jason Harrod, did some work on giving this a more positive look. The design would fit onto a waste bin that has 3 separate cylinders to collect recyclable material. We'd be very happy to help you design something similar for your hotel brand, simply contact us for more information.

Private or Specialised Collection Services. In some destinations there may be private companies or organisations offering the collection of difficult to recycle items such as paper cups lined with plastic, mixed material cartons and items made from plant-based (bio)plastics.

Choose your contractor carefully, ask them exactly what happens to the materials when they take them away. If they can't give you a definitive answer or it sounds suspicious, you may wish to look around for others. If there is no waste infrastructure available for certain materials or products, we recommend that you first identify whether the items are truly necessary or if they could be eliminated, or replaced with multi-use alternatives. If you still need to purchase single-use items for whatever reason, prioritize those that are made from materials that CAN ACTUALLY (NOT THEORETICALLY) BE RECYCLED in your destination.

Staff dedicated to proper waste segregation. We have come across hotels that have created a specific role to ensure that waste segregation in the hotel is done properly. There are two important things to consider in this scenario:

  1. Allocate this member of staff to a specific department so that days off, holidays and days for illness are covered.

  2. The waste separator, or whatever title you give them deserves as much respect as everyone else, it should not mean that other staff do not make an effort, particularly when it comes to separating organic waste from other recyclable items.

Supplier Take Back Schemes. It is a constant source of frustration to us at TWP that so many suppliers do not take responsibility for their own packaging, particularly items like HDPE that are used for chemicals, cleaning solutions and personal care products like shampoo and shower gel bottles. HDPE is extremely hard-wearing and long-lasting and it can be re-used many many times. Often hotels are left to dispose of it after just one use, often at a cost to the hotel.

It is not unrealistic to ask suppliers to take back their own bottles, wash/sanitize them and use them again. In our opinion, if they can deliver products to you, they can pick up empty bottles from you, it is a matter of logistics, business model and probably more importantly, attitude.

If suppliers are willing to take back their own bottles and packaging, hotels do not need to think about how to recycle it or dispose of it responsibly, you simply need to collect the packaging on behalf of the supplier so that they can collect it and keep it in a circular loop. Make a decision if you can to work with suppliers that help you to meet your own sustainability targets rather than sticking with those who don't.

In a recent project that TWP managed in Mallorca on behalf of Futouris, hotels were able to work with a fantastic local company Tot Herba, who not only make personal care products for hotels from local ingredients, they take back their reusable 5 litre bottles and refill them up to 30 times (the limit set by the local health authority). During the pilot project, we identified that a hotel that was previously consuming 2200 bottles of 330ml of personal care products per year that were recycled after use, could in fact only consume 5 refillable bottles thanks to the "re-use model" offered by Tot Herba. Not only that, the return on investment in refillable bottles and wall brackets would be less than 2 years.

Staff Training. In hospitality, staff change regularly, so information about how to recycle properly should be included within the onboarding process. We understand that staff receive a lot of information when they first join any business, it is also the case that people in their roles for a long time can become complacent, so regular reminders via additional training and/or posters on noticeboards in staff areas and next to waste bins is useful.

At TWP, we find it can really help to do this training "out of the office" if you have the opportunity and time to do so.

Futouris Hotel Event at TIRME, Mallorca, 2022

In many destinations, waste management facilities actually have visitor centres and conference rooms. Some years ago, we held an event at a Waste Management Facility in Gran Canaria for hotel managers, and just last year we did the same thing in Mallorca. When people see the sheer volumes of waste being produced every day it can really motivate them to be part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.

Another great opportunity is to do the recycling training and waste reduction training as part of a litter pick day. Not only does this contribute positively to your local community, staff will see first hand the types of litter that are washing up on beaches or collecting in city centres and parks - many of the items they collect will be items they would consume themselves or that they would work with in the hotel. Experiences like this tend to stick with people more than listening to a powerpoint presentation in a meeting room in the belly of the hotel.

Those of you reading this may even have other great ideas that we haven't considered and we would love to hear from you if you do.

New ideas suggested by readers include:

  • Blocking the ERP system so that it doesn't allow staff to order single-use plastic items

  • Taking photographs of items that are constantly put in the wrong bin and using these to remind staff how to recycle right

  • In one hotel, a general manager was so frustrated to continually find the waste being incorrectly separated that he created a multiple choice exam for his staff to take to make sure they were taking things seriously!

Whatever approach you take you need to know if it is working. This needs a baseline which you can do in a number of ways:

  1. Weighing your recyclable waste before it is deposited into the main bins and log this information.

  2. Ask the waste collection company to provide you with the kg of waste per waste type when they collect it.

  3. Estimate your recyclable waste in kg by weighing different waste types for 7-14 days and divide this by the number of overnight stays, this will give you an average per guest that you can then use to estimate waste for the remainder of the operational year.

Once you have a baseline, you can set reduction targets and track your progress.

For help in getting started or accelerating your waste reduction actions, contact us directly via the contact form or on

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