How to Start Recycling at Church

[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of church activities, called Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]

Little girl recycling cans.

A little recycling goes a long way. (cc image courtesy timtak via flickr)

The new “Three R’s,” as we well know, are Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. The “R’s” come in that order for a reason: recycling is the weakest link. If we, especially as Christians, want to have a beneficent effect on creation by limiting its burden of physical waste and pollution, the most substantive action we can take is to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place. Where we can’t avoid producing waste, we can make an effort to re-imagine the possibilities of that thing we’re about to throw out and reuse it, instead. Recycling is the last resort, the action we choose when we can’t avoid producing waste and we can’t reuse that waste, but we still want to dispose of it responsibly.

Why then do we hear so much about recycling? In part, it is because marketeers don’t like us reducing and reusing. Those alternatives mean using less and buying fewer things. All things being equal, corporations would like us to continue to consume their products and to salve our consciences by recycling some of our waste.

Recycling is not a bad option, just not the best. However, it sure beats what we do in a lot of our churches: When we’re done with something, we throw it out. In the trash, from which it proceeds to the landfill, where all of its potential is (sigh) cut short too quickly. Throwing away resources that can be recycled back into the economy is poor stewardship and a poor witness to the world. Visitors to your church may not decide to come back just because of your recycling program, but seeing your church generating heaps of wasted resources may hurt your reputation.

You may need to do some homework before you convince your church to change how it manages its waste. Recycling doesn’t have to be the first step in responsible creation stewardship. Because recycling may require an outlay of resources (time and money), you may decide to start with other creation stewardship actions (check the Flourish “Cultivating Community” posts for other ideas).

But churches CAN recycle effectively. And they have a lot to recycle: paper bulletins, plastic drink cups, water bottles, ink cartridges, and so on. Moreover, because churches are a regular, central gathering place, they have the potential to be a recycling clearinghouse for many household items (ink cartridges, cell phones, fluorescent light bulbs, etc. Still, the task of creating a church recycling program can be a daunting one. Here are some ways to get started and minimize the amount of stress such planning can cause:

Get Started

  • Form a team – Work with the leadership of your church, facility managers, and interested and committed members to configure a recycling program that will serve your church’s needs, interests, and capacities. Is there a lot of support within your church membership for recycling, no matter the cost? Would it work better to recycle materials in a way that would earn money for your church’s ministries? Develop a mission and a plan for the recycling program, and delegate responsibilities to the team members. To get the most agreement, try to find a way to begin recycling that doesn’t require money from the church budget and that doesn’t distract leaders from their existing duties. Show the church leadership that you have a plan for managing the whole program for a trial period, after which you can re-assess its effectiveness.
  • Find your recyclables – What recyclable material does your church throw away most often? Paper bulletins? Plastic water bottles? Cardboard boxes? Evaluating how much of each material your community produces and could be recycling will help you determine which recycling services to ultimately request, as you may be required to pay a fee for the recycling you choose to do.
  • Find a recycler – Check with your current waste management service to learn what recycling services it offers. Your municipality may or may not pick up recycling from businesses or churches; many limit free collection to households, and they charge for collection from other entities. If you aren’t pleased with your current options, research alternatives to find a responsible, trustworthy recycling company. Some recyclers will actually pay you for the recyclables you collect, depending on the quantity and quality of the material. Find reliable recycling programs and centers through the Earth911 website.

Get the Word Out

  • Announce it– Let your church community know about the recycling program so that everyone can be aware of it and fully participate in it. Explain how recycling works and why your church is investing in it, and ask your congregation to participate in and pray for this new initiative.
  • Make it clear – If the company or municipality you’re working with doesn’t provide you with bins to collect recyclables in around the church, get ones that people will notice, or even bins with your church’s logo printed on them, so that it’s clear where folks can recycle. Don’t get bins that look just like your current trash cans and expect people to put the recycling in the right place!
  • Engage the community – If you can open up your recycling system to your neighbors, spread the word. It’s a great way to get to know them, and to enhance your reputation as a church that cares for the common good. People who might never visit one of your services may get to know you through your recycling program.

Get Going

  • Collection bins – Set up bins in sensible places. If you’re collecting mostly paper products, locate bins outside of the
    Public use recycling bin.

    Help your local community recycle with a convenient bin at your church. (cc image courtesy Canton Public Library MI via flickr)

    sanctuary so that members can recycle paper bulletins conveniently, or in the church office or copy center. If food containers (bottles, cups, cans, etc.) comprise the bulk of your recyclables, place bins conveniently near a cafeteria, kitchen, or coffee shop. Bins are moveable, so experiment with their position. Watch people’s behavior at events to see if you can reposition them more effectively, otherwise people give up and put their recyclables in the trash.

  • Recycling collection – Determine who will empty and maintain the indoor recycling bins so that they don’t overflow and cause a mess or, worse, prevent others from putting recyclable materials in them. This is the hard part; be sure you have committed volunteers or willing staff support so you don’t create a nuisance.
  • Signage – Create and post signs that make the recycling guidelines clear, indicating what materials go in which bins. This is very important, and should be accompanied by other forms of communication (in the bulletin, from the pulpit). Nothing discourages or disgusts your waste collection volunteers more than seeing half-eaten plates of food dumped in the recycling by accident. Be prepared for this, be patient, and keep reminding people how the system works.
  • Measure your success – Consider measuring how much recycled material your church generates and giving periodic updates to keep your church family in the loop and to encourage more ownership in the recycling program.

Additional Recycling Measures

  • Recycle to fundraise – If regular recycling proves to be too energy- or cost-intensive for your congregation, consider holding individual recycling events to raise money for ministry. For instance, a cell phone collection event conducted within your community captures valuable materials, keeps toxic materials out of the waste stream, and is combined outreach event and fundraiser for your church. The same sort of event can be held for the collection of aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and even paper goods.
  • Hold an e-waste collection event – E-waste is electronic waste, computers, monitors, television sets, printers, and other electronic items that can’t be repaired or reused, but that should never, ever be tossed in a landfill. That’s because heavy metals and toxic compounds in our electronic devices can leak into the soil and water we depend on. Flourish has a detailed guide to holding an e-waste collection event at your church, though you should think of it as a community-service project rather than a money-maker. Buy recycled – In order for recycling to be a viable industry, entities like your church must also buy products made from recycled materials. Making an effort to purchase paper products (printer paper, toilet paper, facial tissue) marked with the “made from recycled content” symbol and containing the highest percentage of recycled content possible will help complete and continue the recycling…cycle.

Related Posts at Flourish
Trash Your Cell Phone for Good
How to Host a Church E-Waste Collection Event

Further Reading
How to Start or Expand a Recycling Collection Program


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