Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ten Tips for Improving Recycling at Your Workplace

The following suggestions grew out of a year-long effort to establish recycling in Princeton Regional Schools in 2007.

If you're trying to improve recycling in your workplace, these lessons apply whether it be a school, university, business, library, restaurant or any other building. They were learned during a mostly successful four-month effort to restart recycling in Princeton's district schools.


The only way to know whether a building is actually recycling is to check the bins out back, where the recyclables are picked up by the hauler. The bins may be nonexistent, completely empty, filled with contaminants or, though this is less likely, actually filled with the intended recyclables. For optimal evidence, find out when pickup day is and check the day before.


Get everyone on board, including administration, teachers, custodial staff and kids. A message that recycling matters, whether from above or from colleagues, has to be repeated many times for busy people to take heed and change habits.


If someone in each building with passion for recycling is deputized by the leadership, the program has a much greater chance of succeeding and lasting.


Unless the custodians are really committed to making recycling work, it's better if they play a minimal role in the process. Usually this means having a rollout bin not far from offices and/or classrooms that employees/students can take their recyclables to. Custodians then need only roll the bins outside for pickup. In cafeterias, custodians can play an important role in encouraging and monitoring recycling.


People won't pause to read labels. There has to be an immediate recognition of what a container is for. It's best to try for the same color scheme people use locally for their residential curbside recycling.


There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what's recyclable, so it may take some digging to get accurate information. Your hauler should have a list posted on their website. You could also ask them what MRF (Materials Recovery Facility) they haul the recyclables to, since that business's website may also have a list. You can also check with local government, though their list may not be as up to date. Hopefully, one of these entities will have the information in both picture and text that can be printed out from a website. There is likely no difference between what is recyclable residentially and in the workplace. Post the information, particularly the picture, throughout the building, particularly above recycling receptacles. Misinformation reduces the quantity and quality of recyclables.


Any solitary recycling container quickly becomes contaminated with trash. This is a very common error. Most people will throw trash in whatever receptacle is nearby. Whether it be an event, a cafeteria or an office, make sure people have a choice by putting recycling and trash containers side by side, with a visible difference between the two.


Don't allow custodians to use black plastic bags. Transparent ones make it much easier to monitor whether recyclables are getting thrown out with the trash. Opaque plastic liners on recycling containers can also cover up the container's identifying color, making it look like a trash can.


Even when recyclables make it to the proper bin behind the building, they are often left inside a plastic bag. Plastic bags are contaminants in any recycling bin. When custodians put plastic bags on recycling containers, chances are greater that the contents will simply be thrown out with the trash.


Last but by far not least, have someone in charge of regularly checking the bins behind the building the day before scheduled pickup. This is the only way to know how much is getting recycled and the level of contamination. Without this information, the feedback loop is broken. Recycling is a collaborative enterprise involving everyone in a building. Negative results serve to cut through illusions, and positive results can be a source of pride.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Recycling in Puerto Rico

Islands would seem like fertile ground for recycling, given the limited space for landfills, but not so in Puerto Rico. After two days in San Juan, I finally encountered a recycling receptacle, at a bohemian cafe near the art museum. A number of things are being done right in this low-cost configuration. The recycling container is paired with a trash can, and the wide top on the blue recycling receptacle has been covered with a piece of cardboard with a small hole cut in the top, to better insure that only cans will be put there. "Latas" means cans, and a picture of a can is added for those too distracted to read the label.

Another receptacle was found on the university grounds. This looks like an end-of-the-semester hail mary that makes you understand why some custodians give up and throw it all in the trash.

On the island of Culebra, off the east coast of Puerto Rico, this reasonably organized recycling dropoff center stood at the edge of a residential street.

Whether intentional or not, the receptacle is strategically placed at the bottom of two steep streets, where discarded cans and bottles naturally accumulate after getting washed downhill along the curb.

With another receptacle seen at the ferry station, that makes a grand total of four receptacles seen over the course of a week. Given all the unemployment, and the potential value of cans and bottles for reuse, you'd think there could be some sort of win-win lurking amidst the trash.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Recycling at Hinds Plaza in Princeton, NJ

There's been discussion of improving recycling in Princeton's Hinds Plaza, next to the public library. It's easy to figure out whether the current system is working:

One drawback to the existing system is that the trash and recycling containers look very similar. Function in upscale locations is often sacrificed for uniform, stylized appearance.

One thing helping to overcome this drawback is that the recycling and trash containers are paired for the most part, so that people are presented with a choice. A recycling container off on its own is treated by pedestrians as a trashcan.

Some of the containers have lost their tops, which need to be secured with wire so they don't walk away. Altogether, four tops have wandered off. Trash cans outnumber recycling receptacles 6 to 4.
Despite the similarity in design, there's still pretty good separation going on. This snoopybird's eye view shows some contamination with nonrecyclables but not much. The question is whether even this small amount of contamination is allowed by the hauler, or if these bags end up in the trash.
Next door, in the public library cafe, the contrast between the trash and recycling containers was enhanced by putting a new, clearly marked and small aperture top on the recycling container. Separation improved greatly after this was done.

Since some tops are missing from the receptacles outside, perhaps this sort of retrofit could be used in the plaza as well. Four new tops are needed anyway, and there are four recycling containers outside--a convenient coincidence. Since rain would get in, something other than plastic bags would need to be used inside the receptacles so that water doesn't accumulate.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Recycling in Turkey

My brother and sister-in-law sent me these photos of recycling containers in Turkey, complete with translations, beginning with three photos of recycling in Afyon. "Cam sise kumbarasi" means glass bottle piggybank.

They took photos of all the containers they noticed, so there were many cities where they saw none at all.

Other translations on receptacles:

renksiz sise ve kavanoz means clear bottles and jars
renkli sise ve kavanoz means colored bottles and jars
pil means battery
kagit means paper

 Recycling in Ankara
 At the Istanbul airport.

Back in Milwaukee.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Recycling On the Streets of Lambertville

Lambertville, NJ is a lovely old town on the Delaware, not far from Washington Crossing. The town specializes in antiques, including these robotic looking recycling containers.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Recycling on the Mall in Washington D.C.

These are highly effective recycling containers. Lots of things are being done right here. The recycling container is paired with a trash can, and there is lots of contrast between the two, with the recycling container offering lots of visual cues to go along with the wording on top.

One additional advantage of this sort of transparent recycling container is that maintenance crews can easily see when it is getting full. Otherwise, there's a tendency for recycling containers to be emptied--plastic bag and all--long before they fill up, which means a lot of plastic bags can get wasted.

For the manufacturer, click here.

For a related post, click here.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Recycling Containers in China

I guess you can say that this blog is now international in scope. Carl Eric Fredlund took these photos while traveling in China.
The container in the lower right corner of the second photo is described by Carl this way: "in the mainland everywhere (well, any town thats big enough to have trash cans at all) has trash cans with one side for recyclables and one for trash. There were also many nicely designed circular ones with this function, but I don't have any pictures of those yet."

Thanks to Carl for providing these photos.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Princeton Borough Parks Start Recycling

With new recycling receptacles arriving in township parks, I sent an email to the borough to ask if they could also begin recycling again in borough parks. A week later, maybe by coincidence, these buckets showed up, hooked to existing trash cans.

I've often thought that the most cost-efficient way to get recycling receptacles widely available in public areas would be to design a receptacle that simply attaches to existing trash containers. This bucket, distributed by Mercer County, is a simple version. It is attached with wire to the trash can to keep it from "walking away".

The receptacle's presence doesn't mean that recycling is actually happening. We can hope that park users will pay attention and put recyclables in the right container, and that the staff that collect the recyclables will keep the recyclables separate from the trash. There are plenty of points in the necessary chain of events where recycling can break down. But at least a functional receptacle is in place.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Body Language and Recycling Containers

The string of posts below were originally posted at www.princetonprimer.com. They serve as critiques of a wide variety of recycling containers used in places frequented by the public. That many of them, including those that cost as much as $1000 each, fail to serve their intended purpose points to the need for this "course" in container design.

Containers matter because they are the first in a row of dominoes, helping determine whether a recycling system functions or collapses in a heap. If the trash is mixed with recyclables, custodians throw it all away, and use the contamination as an excuse to eventually not bother recycling at all. This "recycling in name only" in turn breeds cynicism, further eroding participation by the public. The dysfunctional containers remain long afterwards, in libraries, stadiums, on city streets--like gravestones to good intentions.

A functional recycling container 1) provides abundant visual cues to the user, and 2) is paired with a trash container. These two rules are very simple, but through indifference or some stubborn belief that people carefully read signs and behave rationally, they are frequently ignored.

Though recycling in concept has broad, perhaps almost universal support, most people are surprisingly oblivious about what they do with an item they wish to get rid of when out about town. Refuse or recyclable, it goes in the first trash-like container they encounter, regardless of labeling. As described in one of the posts, our big brains don't want to be preoccupied with small things. Unfortunately, countless small actions add up to large consequence, as we've seen over and over--in nonpoint source pollution, global warming, and the voting that serves as the foundation of democracy.

Most recycling container designs fail for lack of the right visual cues. People don't stop to take note of the nice recycling logo, but respond instead, in their state of distraction, to subliminal messages--the body language of the container.

Transparency in Recycling Containers

Transparency--being able to see the bottles and cans in the container--works on multiple levels. It gives abundant visual cues to the user, and it lets the custodian know when the bag is full. With a small hole on top, and a trash can close by, there's very little chance that these will get filled with trash.

The first one is a bit flimsy, but is light weight and very handy for events. It can be obtained at http://www.cleartainers.com/index.asp.
The second photo was sent to me by a NJ municipality that makes these out of PVC pipe. Sand is put in the lower portions of the piping to increase stability. If you want the specs for this, email me from the "about me" box in the right column of this blog.

The last photo shows a "Cannable" (on the left), which is a sturdy version one can buy. They can be used with or without clear plastic liners.

Recycling Containers in Nearby Cities

Here's a decent setup in Central Park. A rollout bin has been modified for recycling bottles and cans, with a trash can strategically located right next to it to reduce chances of contamination.

In the subways of New York City, they claim that recyclables will be separated out from the trash. Certainly simplifies things on the collection end. There have been a lot of advances in separation technology.

The last photo was taken at the skating rink at Penns Landing in Philadelphia. Great place to go, by the way, but their trash/recycling duo is doomed to failure. True, they are paired, and the recycling container looks different, but the wide mouth insures that the uncaring masses will contaminate it with trash.

Recycling Containers in Princeton Parks

The typical approach to recycling outdoors is to not provide the recycling option, which characterizes most town streets.
In Princeton parks, 35 gallon yellow recycling bins have been common. Though they work pretty well if paired with trash cans, their large openings make contamination with trash more likely.

A more expensive approach was tried at Turning Basin Park, where many pairs of wood-framed trash and recycling containers were installed for a total of $12,000. They're built to last, and won't walk away, but their subtle visual cues--particularly the similarly sized holes--may prevent distracted users from noticing which is which.

Adapting Recycling Containers So They Work

As previous posts (below) have shown, good looks often defeats the goal of recycling. There are attractive recycling containers that are completely dysfunctional, ugly ones that serve the purpose, and all manner inbetween.

These three photos show modifications of existing containers. The first one is in an informal cafe, showing off once again the limitless versatility of cardboard in its service to humanity. Have a wide-mouthed trash can that you want to convert so people will only throw bottles and cans in it? Cardboard and felt pen to the rescue!
The second photo shows another, more weather resistant way to convert a trash can into a recycling container. Simply cut a hole in a plastic lid and add a small laminated sign. Note that it's paired with a container for trash. Otherwise, people would be tempted to throw trash in it, despite the small size of the opening.

The third photo is a clever, minimalist modification of a regular trash can at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in Pennsylvania. One makes pie-shaped slits in the lid, through which people push the can or bottle.

As far as I know, there is no manufacturer of this simple kind of recycling retrofit for trash cans. Makers of trash cans do not sell lids separately, much to the disgruntlement of hardware store owners, who find that lids tend to disappear from their shelves, leaving them with lidless trash cans they can't sell.

Recycling Container Contest at Princeton Stadium

There's a hard-fought contest going on every day at the Princeton University football stadium. The Bad But Beautifuls are duking it out with the Good But Uglies in the Regional Recycling Division.

Whose going to win? In the first photo is the Bad But Beautiful, featuring stylish stainless steel design and subtle distinctions between the trash (left) and the recycling container (right). I'm betting the recycling container will fail bigtime, because it's too far from, and looks too much like, the trash container.

Sure enough, the second photo shows the Bad But Beautiful recycling container is getting filled with trash.

"Taking the field" on the stadium's south side are the Good But Uglies, who aren't winning any beauty contest but definitely look like a contender.

A small hole for the bottles/cans, angled to keep out the rain, discourages trash even when they aren't paired with a trash can. They are soft-spoken--the lettering is hard to see--but in a game where body language matters more than labels, these containers are sending a message--NO TRASH HERE!

Check out the complete lack of trash contamination in the last photo. I think we have a winner!

Princeton University Recycling Containers

The older, poorly designed recycling containers are slowly being replaced on campus by better designs. The first photo here shows one of the older designs that, though paired, still are problematic because the trash (left) and recycling containers look so similar.

Note, 12/2011: Recent checks suggest that these are getting decent separation, which may be due to students caring enough to notice the color difference.

A newer design has been installed at the new soccer stadium, as part of an effort by the unversity's rec department to improve recycling at all stadiums on campus. The recycling bin is on the left, with a small hole for cans and bottles, made vertical so that rain doesn't get in. All of these are paired with trash cans, and probably work well. It would be better if the container was not completely opaque, i.e. if the container made it easy to see if the bag inside is filling up and needs to be emptied.

The third photo shows the kind of container that's becoming common inside buildings, with different shaped holes for trash, paper and cans/bottles. These, too, look like a big improvement.

I recently attended a basketball game at Jadwyn Gym, and was glad to find that they now have transparent recycling bins set up in various places, next to trash cans (see post about transparency in recycling containers for more info). I was even more glad because I had been the one who suggested they give the transparent bins a try. It's always deeply flattering when someone actually takes your advice.

Dysfunctional Recycling Containers -- Part 2

One day, after a lunchtime talk at Princeton University on global warming, students, faculty and some locals were milling around, finishing their lunch while avidly discussing how to save the world. As they left, they were far too distracted by their lofty thoughts to notice they were stuffing their paper plates in a recycling container for cans and bottles. A container labeled for trash was just outside the door, but nobody could be bothered to seek it out.

And so it goes with much of human life. Our big brains are more taken with big ideas than the nitty gritty, small acts that cumulatively determine our fate on this planet.

It doesn't help that these containers are poorly designed. The big opening in the recycling container is begging for refuse,

and there is no visual cue beyond the subtle labeling to distinguish it from the trash can (2nd photo). If environmentalists don't bother to read the labeling, who will?

The custodians told me that if there's any contamination in the recyclables, they throw the whole batch in the trash.

Recycling Container Do's and Don't's

There are beautiful recycling containers that are completely dysfunctional, ugly ones that serve the purpose, and all manner inbetween.

Here's one in the latter category, showing off once again the limitless versatility of cardboard in its service to humanity. Have a wide-mouthed trash can that you want to convert so people will only throw bottles and cans in it? Cardboard and felt pen to the rescue!
The second photo shows another, more weather resistant way to convert a trash can to a recycling container. Simply cut a hole in a plastic lid and add a small laminated sign. Note that it's paired with a trash can. Otherwise, people would be tempted to throw trash in it, despite the small size of the opening.

As far as I know, there is no manufacturer of this simple recycling retrofit for trash cans. Makers of trash cans do not sell lids separately, much to the disgruntlement of hardware store owners, who find that lids tend to disappear from their shelves, leaving them with lidless trash cans they can't sell.

A Step Forward!

Of many small steps is a functional recycling program composed. The Princeton Public Library cafe, whose look-alike trash and recycling containers were preventing adequate separation (previous post), has retrofitted its recycling container with a new top. The contrast in color, the smaller opening, and the pairing of the trash and recycling containers all should help prevent the recycling container from being contaminated with trash.

The library has also improved other aspects of its recycling program.

Dysfunctional Recycling Containers -- Part 1

They say you can't judge a book by its cover. This recycling container looks perfectly sensible, clearly labeled as to what should be thrown into it. But in practice it fails miserably at its intended use, and has been doing so ever since the Princeton Public Library's cafe opened several years ago.

A functional recycling container would 1) provide abundant visual cues to the user, and 2) be paired with a trash container. The absence of either of these attributes almost always insures the "recycling" container will get filled with trash.

Designers of buildings and plazas typically choose aesthetics over functionality, which often means the trash and recycling containers are both expensive (as much as $1000 each) and stylishly similar in appearance. The library cafe's recycling container fails because it is placed far from the trash container and looks just like it (2nd photo). Though the container is labeled, no one stops to read labels, and the container's wide mouth is an invitation for trash.

Here you have a high profile public building in a progressive town, no doubt run by people with environmental sympathies, and everything but cardboard is being thrown in the trash dumpster out back.

You'd expect institutions like schools and libraries to use recycling as a way to educate children to be good environmental stewards, but my experience has been the opposite. Far from being unusual, this "recycling in name only" is more the rule than the exception in public places, institutions and businesses.

Only an extremely persistent volunteer effort was sufficient to get recycling up to speed in Princeton's public schools last year. This fall, multiple emails over several months to the library have at last yielded a recognition by the library's management of this and other recycling problems in the building. Princeton township and borough have mandatory recycling ordinances, but these by themselves do not make recycling happen.

In the plaza outside the library are some more gleaming containers, sometimes paired. The openings are at least different--for those that still have tops--but there's a good chance that people don't distinguish, and that all contents get carted off to the landfill.