WMU grad student collects recycling data for Rubbermaid


Joshua Turske’s research centers on the location of recycling bins in buildings and how that placement affects users’ habits. Courtesy WMU

Findings from research led by a Western Michigan University graduate student are being used to guide Newell Brands and its Rubbermaid Commercial Products brand through the recycling arena.

Joshua Turske answered the post by Newell Brands, which has a location on WMU's Business Technology and Research Park, and wanted data to answer questions about placement of recycling bins in a building.

Turske, a psychology graduate student studying industrial/organizational behavioral management, said his passion for sustainability initially piqued his interest in the project. He spent four years working for WMU's Office for Sustainability while earning his undergrad degree.

Through his studies, he is learning how psychological research can tackle wide-reaching problems that seem unapproachable, compartmentalizing problems and figuring out actionable steps toward solving them.

"When I found that there was a call for researchers to actually use the skills I've developed through graduate school to make an impact on the sustainable world, that was a big pull," Turske said.

His research project analyzed the recycling habits of people on the WMU campus for a year, studying how the placement and quantity of bins in groups of three — one for landfill; one for paper; and one for glass, plastic and metal — would yield the highest recycling rates and lowest contamination rates.

Most companies only have anecdotes and testimonials on products, he said, but this data could help the company provide practical information to its customers based on empirical evidence.

Turske developed four research questions to explore during the study:

  • What type of recycling label is better, text- or image-based?

  • What number of pods lead to optimum recycling?

  • What is the optimum placement of pods?

  • Which type of container material produces the best results?

He and his team of 14 undergrad student researchers began their work in summer 2017.

Guided by the questions, the team shifted the number and placement of Rubbermaid recycling and trash bins throughout the building every couple of weeks.

The team examined the bins inside WMU’s Wood Hall. Turske said the building’s first and second floors are almost identical, making it a good research control.

In order to find out what people were tossing into bins, Turske and his team had to sift through trash, piece by piece, and document it.

The custodians essentially became research assistants, too. They gathered the waste from pods throughout the building for the researchers and tied the bags with assigned ties to indicate where the trash came from.

"Every day, we would sort through everything to rate it for accuracy,” Turske said. “You lost your sense of smell, which was good.”

One of the main findings of Turske's study involved signage placed near recycling centers. Data showed people were more likely to recycle — and do so correctly — when a sign above the bins featured pictures rather than just text to indicate what could be thrown in.

He said the pictures are a little larger and can be seen from farther away, so people can determine where refuse goes as they’re approaching the bins.

"We found making recycling easier makes people want to do the behavior more, which is great,” he said

While the team found that the placement of only six bins led to people not using containers at all, they found there was no difference between the amount of waste captured by nine or 12 bins.

They also learned bins placed near entrances and exits were most effective, and that the material Rubbermaid Commercial Products uses for its bins also decreased recycling contamination.

"People wanted to interact with the (Rubbermaid Commercial Products) bins more due to the fact that they looked nicer, they seemed sleeker and were more uniform," Turske said. "They said they would actually feel bad if they didn't recycle properly."

Turske presented his findings at Newell Brands, Commercial and Consumer Solutions divisional headquarters in North Carolina.

Newell plans to use Turske's project to train its field team.

Catie Cartee, Newell Brands associate brand manager, said distributor partners often ask how to implement recycling programs for clients.

"This helps us give a more educated, data-based answer,” Cartee said.

Turske's research is prompting change on WMU's campus, as well. Lu DeBoef, working in the WMU Office for Sustainability during the project, wanted to identify ways to limit contamination. Turske and DeBoef have gone through buildings and assessed recycle cluster placement, based on the research findings.

WMU also started replacing text-based recycling prompts with signage featuring pictures, which the research showed was more effective.

Turske said this and other projects have given him the skills to consult for companies, and he tries to incorporate sustainability wherever he works.

Turske added he plans to pursue sustainability as a career after graduation. He also is pursuing an MBA at WMU to gain a stronger traditional business viewpoint, he said.

He said he has been applying for some sustainability coordinator and quality assurance positions in the Kalamazoo area.

“In a dream world, I would love to work as an external consultant for smaller businesses to help them get the tools that they need to get off the ground while still incorporating sustainable practices,” Turske said.

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