Building a Better Bin part IV

Saturday, June 27, 2009

I mentioned in a previous post that recycling is a question of convenience. This isn’t the case all the time but I am willing to bet that you aren’t even aware of a tenth of the waste decisions you make in your daily life. When I was a kid in grade school a group of older students from some random high school came into my class to give a presentation about recycling. The details are fuzzy now but I do recall that when I got home that night I pestered my mom about recycling and how important it is. “Police should force everyone to recycle” I declared to my mother as I half-scowled at her for not having a recycling bin in our apartment.

What I didn’t understand is that not only did my mother come from a different generation with different mentalities and norms about recycling, but also that we lived in an apartment building and recycling was not offered. What never dawned on me at that age and likely still evades many people today is that recycling is a matter of convenience plain and simple.

Permit me to contradict myself for just one second. I was one of those people who would carry my recyclables around with me until I found a bin I could put it in. Crushed cans, crumpled paper, an apple core (yikes); pockets became my greatest allies. But I am one of the rare exceptions; many people won’t carry their own waste around for hours on end. If you are on a date or about to go to a job interview, odds are you are going to toss your waste into the closes bin possible.

So I wasn’t surprised when our first ever recycling survey came back to us with three key results – one, there weren’t enough bins on campus – two, no one could find the bins that did exist – three, no one could understand what could and couldn’t be recycled. This was exactly what I expected because all of these complaints were convenience based and when dealing with convenience we have to address barriers.

Barrier number one – there aren’t enough bins on campus. This means that people aren’t seeing as many opportunities to recycle as they are to throw things into a waste bin. The solution for this one is fairly easy but it is two-fold; increase the number of recycling bins and decrease the number of waste bins. If convenience is queen than it doesn’t matter to people what kind of bin is there, they will just throw something into it. For us the proof is in the pudding (and the numerous waste audits where we found garbage in the recycling bin and recyclables in the garbage bins). Our solution was to create stations with recycling and waste integrated into one unit, thereby increasing the number of recycling bins and limiting the proportion of waste bins.

Barrier number two – no one can find any of the bins we do have on campus. There is nothing funnier (hyperbolise alert) than watching someone try to find a recycling bin after you ask them where the closest one is. They get that look of their face that says “I know I have used a recycling bin before but... I can’t for the life of me remember where?” It is truly something out of the movie Dark City. Our solution was to flood the campus in bins. Of course this wasn’t an option because bins are expensive and we didn’t want to create bin pollution. So we thought about it carefully and came up with an idea… no one would be able to exit a building without passing by at least one recycling station. We have since strategically placed bins all around campus in a manner that forces you to pass by one unless you are using an emergency exit. We even mapped walking trajectories to make sure that the bins were in line with where people move.

Barrier number three – no one understood what could be recycled. This was a systemic problem because recycling providers change what can and can’t be recycled from year to year. So that means that after a couple of years everyone gets mixed up. So the signs on recycling bins are usually general one or two word descriptors (ex. paper, plastic, metal, etc.). To address this we used pictures, that way people could visually identify the recyclable objects to go into each bin. We also changed one of our descriptors from mixed fibres to mixed paper. It was just easier to understand.

So that is the secret to the success of our bins. We had to come to the realization that things don’t recycle themselves, people ultimately make the choice to recycle. Therefore it is imperative to make the system as easy as possible to use or else nobody is going to do it. All the fancy bins in the world don’t mean a thing if they are empty at the end of the day.

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