EC 040: Reducing Long Lines at Recycling Collection Events

In this podcast, I share my observations at a recycling collection event for plastics, batteries and styrofoam held recently near Portland, Oregon called Planetcon. The line to drop off plastic bags and film started to get really long, and extend all the way back to my table.

I was at the event for another reason, to setup a table and promote Recycling Advocates’ BYOC campaign.




I’d like to talk about an event I attended the other day, this weekend actually. This was a recycling education repair fair and I think they did some Styrofoam and battery collection as well. I just wanted to talk through when I go to events like these, I was actually tabling at the event for my nonprofit, and just made some observations. I was by the area where they were dropping off plastic film and plastic bags for recycling and things kind of backed up really far, and the line got really long and so, of course, it’s hard not to watch and see what’s going on and try to figure out what’s happening.

First off, with any kind of volunteer activity like this, we have to have respect for people. The people who were organizing this, I have nothing against them. They’re wonderful, they’re great. All this stuff is just my observations about how we could maybe improve for next time. It’s not meant to point fingers at anyone or say someone did it wrong or not. There’s a lot of things that could be improved even on people who’ve been doing processes and running events for years and years. These are just observations I made and things I’ll try to bring up to the organizers for next year, so it runs maybe a little bit better. Same with the volunteers, everyone was working really hard. Just like when I look at a process or a business, most of the time, 99% of the time, people are trying to do a good job and they’re working really hard, and so a lot of the ideas we want to do and put in place is things that make the job easier or smarter or less chaotic, safer, and more fun; not to make people work harder or go faster.

First of all, the line started to form and build up over time. There was about 10 people who actually left because they didn’t want to wait around. They thought it was going to be a quick drop-off of their bags and film and they were surprised when there was a line and they were like, “Where do I just drop this off so I can leave?”

I think setting expectations for people, in the future, on how long this actually takes, that it’s not something you just drop-off, but that there is going to be a wait because we’re going to go through and make sure there’s a clean drop-off of what they’re bringing in, there’s no contamination going to the plastic recycling center, so that requires someone to go through and do that. I think that would be one thing to do is you really have to set your customer’s expectations clearly.

Based on that issue that I observed, there was a lot of frustration with people in line. They stuck around through the whole thing, but it probably was not a great experience for them, at least the people who were there during the really busy times, and I’ll talk about the times a little bit. There was a couple of different things they could bring over. The two primary things was the film, which would be like outer plastic wrap around packaging, like if you get toilet paper, for example, and you get a 24 pack, it’s the wrapping around the outside of it, or other types of plastic packaging around pallets or bread bags, things like that. The other one would be actually plastic bags, like from a grocery store. In Portland, in the Portland Metro area, the plastic bags are being banned more and more, so they’re not as big of a problem, but people have been collecting them and using them and saving them up, and so it’s an opportunity for people to go turn them in if they don’t want them anymore.

What I would do is look at breaking up the flow a little bit, and trying to break it down by product. If someone only has bags, maybe they go to one section to drop-off, and if they have film, they go to another section. Therefore, people who just have bags that are pretty straightforward, they could go through a little faster. The film seems to be, from afar, and again, I had a table in the middle of the line, so I was trying to observe from a distance, so it’s not a pure assessment like I would prefer where I would actually be right there in the middle of the work being done, but I could kind of see what was going on and look from a distance, but not ideal for sure, so my observations are skewed a little bit as well. I think going in and having maybe a little break out, and then if you have bags, you go one line, if you also have film, then you go to the next line there, or maybe they could have a third one that would be for both. That might help a little bit with some of the flow issues, breaking it up a little bit.

I think when things were really backed up, some of the volunteers jumped in and did a great job of trying to make sure that people who were in line actually needed to be in line. I think that seemed to work, and a lot of people did leave because they realized, “I can take some of these things I have somewhere else. There are places that will accept them; this isn’t the only spot,” so they said, “I don’t want to wait in line. I’ll go do it the next time I go to the store,” because you can drop-off plastic bags at a lot of the grocery stores. So some people did that and that helped lower the demand and the number of people in line, so that’s good. I would actually recommend they do that the full-time next year is always have a gatekeeper, basically, to make sure that everybody in line is good.

Just like in a manufacturing process, you want to make sure the quality of anything going to the bottleneck of your process is high-quality and good. You don’t want to send partial or defective things through that process because that wastes a lot of time, so only good, high-quality things. So someone should be a gatekeeper, and look over their bags that they’re bringing in and say, “Yeah, that’s right. You’re in the right line. That’s good.” or “you need to cut those labels off. You need to do this. Can you break those out?” and help them with a little bit of prep or readjustment or reorganization, or get them out of the line if they don’t belong there. I think that’s probably a good next step there.

They also had some criteria of what is acceptable or not, and they did a really awesome job on their website and they made videos on what to do. If someone had gone to the website and read through it and watched the videos, they should have been very clear about what to do, but we know, from experience, that just educating people isn’t enough. You have to also have process controls and reinforcement and checks in place to be really effective, and you can’t assume everybody’s going to get the training, so that would be something.

They had a board, but the board was right up at the very front and it was a little bit too late. They started to shift it over to the side, so it’s easy to read for people in line, but it is a little bit too close to the front. They could probably have brought that close to the beginning. Maybe that’s where the gatekeeper person would be with that criteria so, again, people who are in line, they know exactly what the criteria is, they’re not surprised or caught off guard. I think trying to adjust where the location of that was as reinforcement that, “Yeah, I have the right things and this is going to be accepted here.”

As the lines got longer, I think trying to shift, if there was anybody available as a volunteer, I think it should have been highlighted, and send people over to that area to try to deal with whatever they can. The process was, basically, someone would come up to a table and they would dump out everything in their bags and then an expert, or what we call master recyclers, and they have expertise around what is acceptable or not. They would go through every little item and make sure it was good and separate it out into the proper place and then they would say, “No, we can’t take this. We can’t take that.” So you have these experts that are very critical and, just like any process you might have at work, what you don’t want to do is you try to minimize as much of their time doing non-value added tasks that are not directly involved with their expertise. I noticed there were some times where that expert was going to go grab more bags, or looking for scissors and tools, or waiting for the residents to walk up to the table. They’d hold up their hand and then it might be 5 or 10 seconds before the person notices and then walks over.

What you wanted to do is maybe also have a second person there that would be directing people to it, and getting them in line, ready to go, waiting. There’s a cool video with a New York food bank where they were showing some improvements that Toyota had helped them with. Part of that was having an on-deck area, and when they sensed that someone was wrapping up, they’d say, “Go over to there and get right behind that person,” so we minimize the time between the next person being done and the next person in line getting there. Those 5 to 10 seconds for maybe a couple of hundred people who were in line throughout the day, that adds up.

Also, the way they set it up, they went across the entire hallway and there was about five stations there. If you did have some more expertise, you really had no place to put them. I think there’s a different configuration that can be looked at to allow to expand to six or seven or eight people, but the current setup they had just did not allow for that. The setup limited how many people could actually do that work. I could probably have been trained myself, if I was available, I could have been trained on that pretty quickly, and then gone over and helped, or another volunteer could have as well, but there really wasn’t any room for that. Like anything, you have to allow your processes to have the physical space to increase or decrease as needed, and this one was kind of limited, so I think looking at a different setup, maybe a staggered one that didn’t go all the way across the wall, but went back further, and you could add a couple of stations here and there.

Also, the videos online that they put out was really good. It recommended even writing the number of the plastic that’s on there, so that it made it easier for the workers to do that. So kind of shifting a little bit of the work to the residents, but that would help streamline the process a little bit if people came in, and it was easy to identify those numbers. If you’ve ever looked at a plastic item, the numbers on there are hard to find. They’re not very easy because they’re just raised a little bit, and so it can take a little bit of time to search for that number and that’s not what we want the experts to be looking for. I really liked that suggestion. They just put a little sharpie and wrote down the number, so it stood out.

And then I think an area where you have an “Unknown” or “I’m not sure.” There was a lot of discussion with people interrupting other experts saying, “What do you think about this or that?” Maybe just say, “I don’t know,” throw it into an “other” category and then, at the end of the event, we’ll go back through those and decide if there’s anything in there that really needs to be categorized at that time, or could be recycled, or if it gets thrown away. I think you want to try to make pretty quick decisions at that point, and then maybe just leave a little bit of unknown at the end, but not to interrupt somebody else who’s working with another resident to ask that question unless it’s something really, really quick.

Going forward, I would say, maybe for next time, one suggestion would be that really look at capacity. I know there was some issues with communicating out the event and maybe they got a wider net of people to come out to the event than they expected, and so maybe there was more demand than they expected. I don’t know what the total numbers were yet or what they were expecting to have, but if it totally got overwhelmed because they did not anticipate that number, then maybe that’s something to think about for next year is preparing for more than what is expected, especially if you hear that the word is getting out to counties outside of the original intent.

And then trying to do a little bit of scenario planning. When I was doing just a quick glance at some timings, I saw some of them were as short as a minute, and some were up to maybe four or five minutes long. If you look at it, do a little bit of simulation on that, and you look at the numbers, it probably makes sense that there’s going to be a long line at some point, and that can help you decide we need more volunteers, we need more stations and that type of thing. That’s something to definitely look at.

They did give criteria for the residents on how to organize, so that was good, but one thing they left off was something around receipts. They didn’t mention that, but I heard them shouting that out that, “Make sure there’s no receipt to your bags.” Maybe that’s something that just came out later, so they could just add that into the criteria and into the video too for next year so, hopefully, there’s fewer situations like that.

I kind of kept track of where the lines were. When the lines first started, it was good. There were maybe 10 people in line waiting and then, about 30 minutes into it, the line starts to form and it gets all the way back to where I was. That’s probably 15, 20 people. Then, by about an hour into the event, and this is a three-hour event, so an hour into it, there was a much longer line, let’s say close to 30 people, and that continued to about 12:30. I thought it was going to be about the peak time, but then an hour 45 minutes into it, over the halfway point, there was a little dip and then, in the last hour, then it really got bad. It got super long, and then it got really long and then it got super, extremely long and this is about 30 minutes to go, so about two and half hours into a three-hour event. Then towards the last 15 minutes, you start to see this drop-off, but I think there was a lot of work to intervene. I think I heard some discussions were like, “Don’t worry about the labels. Just grab it; we’ll deal with it later.” So I think the criteria got loosened up a little bit, and then there was more discussions with people like, “Do you really need to be here? You can take that to the grocery store. You don’t have to wait in line here.” So I think that that helped get the line down a little bit, but probably not the ideal way they wanted to do that. At 2 o’clock, which was at the end of the event, there was still a long line, still people trickling in there. Then maybe 15 minutes, up to a half hour after the event, where things dwindled down and it stopped. So even right up to the end of the time, technically, there was still a long line there.

In the future, probably you could promote, “Try to get there early because the line will form later.” I think the people that probably came late, maybe they were planning on that, trying to, hopefully, get there when it would be slow. Probably, in a better situation, that would be the case too. The very beginning and the very end of the event was probably ideal, and then the middle of the event was long, but it actually got longer, probably after the lunchtime. That could be something to think about. If you have limited volunteers, you could try to stagger them a little bit to make sure that they’re there maybe at the halfway point, because that might be where the demand really picks up.

The other thing you need to look for as you’re doing these types of observations is look at the customer, the residents themselves. They were the customers of the process that were coming in to get drop-off their stuff. One thing, I saw that a lot of them thought it was going to be just a drop-off, so they lugged in six bags or eight bags of things and then they’re in this long line and then they’re shoving these bags along with them. Because they don’t want to hold onto them, so they just set them on the ground and they kick them forward or shove them forward with their foot. Maybe there’s a way to get some shopping carts for people who have a lot of bags, if there is a line, so it’s a little more comfortable and it’s a little less struggle for them to handle it.

The only positive is that people could look at our table because they’re standing in line, but that’s not really the type of value we want to be providing for people. You want them to stop by your table because they want to, and not because they’re forced to, or have to. Ideally, I would love to actually get in there and do some timings and sit back with the workers and talk to them and ask them questions and say, “What do you need? What do you need help with?” and hear from more of those non-value added uses of their time. Like I said, this is not meant to be a criticism or anything. They did an awesome job. All the workers were amazing how fast they were working, and they knew that there was a long line and they were trying the best they can to go through it, but they were also trying to get really high-quality because they didn’t want to have contamination; that kind of defeats the whole purpose of these collection events.

So if you know of these events that are going on in your community or area, and you want to practice some of this, I think it would be great to go over and offer up, “I’d like to help observe and coordinate the flow of people coming in there,” or, “Can I just sit back and take notes and make observations?” and then make suggestions as things are going through and say, “Let’s move this forward. Let’s correct this.” Or try to get on the planning side of it early, beforehand, and offer, “I’d like to help set up this flow.” I’d be happy to help anyone who wants to work on that and give you some things to think about or some considerations. Hopefully, that helps a little bit. I just was making those observations on-the-fly and thought it would be something interesting for you guys to hear about. But definitely, from a “lean and the environment” standpoint, when we have these types of events where we’re having drop-offs and collections, we want them to be smooth and efficient, so people have a good experience and they want to come back and drop-off more things that can be recycled or reused in the future. If you have any questions, reach out to me and let me know. Thanks.