Building a Better Bin - part VI

Thursday, July 23, 2009

So as we bring this little journey about recycling bins comes to an end it would be foolish of me to not mention all the hidden green elements of our bins. I often find that people respect things more when they know a little something about it. Aside from the basic elements that I discussed about our bins, I want to share some fun tidbits.

I called this entry green to the core for a reason. When the bins were being designed my supervisor asked, “What are the bins going to be made out of?” He thought that it was important that if we try to be greener than we should really be greener. The design team agreed and so we specified FSC wood. We also specified that all the glues used be non-toxic. We actually toyed around with the idea of using recycled ceramics for the counter-tops except... it would have added hundreds of dollars to the price of the bins.

While designing the bins we asked the good people of sanitary services how we could make these bins so that they would be more helpfully for them. As it turns out a lot of the recycling bins experience what we call contamination - one of which is liquid contamination. You have to understand that the cleaning staff do have to sort through a lot of the waste to make sure that the right things are going into the right bins. One of their biggest pet-peeves was when someone would dump their coffee into the paper recycling bin, contaminating the paper and making the paper unrecyclable. They told us that they wanted a sink.

This kind of threw us back a little; how do you put a sink inside a recycling counter? In the end we had to turn to coffee shops to figure out how to deal with coffee. You see the solution was starring us in the face every single time that we went to Bridgehead. In many coffee shops in fact, there are small sinks built into the condiments counter so that you can dump out a little bit of coffee if you have too much in your cup. At first we were scared that we would have to connect a sink to sewage pipes in order to be able to get rid of the liquids. At the Bridgehead on Slater Street we saw that they simply had their coffee and other liquids draining into a simple container that they just dumped down the sink nightly.

Now before you start asking if adding a sink was really the best use of resources I am going to jump out ahead of this and say YES! Think of it this way, if you dump your coffee into the mixed paper recycling and all paper inside gets soaked, than that paper is going to sit in the recycling bin and eventually get mouldy. When that happens we won’t be able to recycle the paper at all. Also, think about what the liquids (coffee, water, cola, whatever) do to the weight of the waste. Liquids are dense; increasing the weight of the waste means shipping liquid off to the landfill at a financial and environmental cost. So simply pouring these liquids down the drain actually reduces our tipping fees and reduces the amount of CO2 generated by transportation.

One of the interesting environmental features came out during a meeting with the brass of Physical Resources Services. With the introduction of another compartment for liquid disposal, there was a concern that the new counters would be too large. We needed a bin for paper, plastic, metal, glass, liquids, and waste. Mario Bouchar, former director of the service, asked a simple question, “I can recycle plastic, metal, and glass all together at home... why can’t I do that here?”

The answer was simple, you could. So we comingled the recyclables and saved space. More importantly we eliminated the need to have cleaning staff clean out an extra bin and use another garbage bag for no reason. Even more, we are finding less broken glass in the recycling system because the plastic and metal is cushioning the fall of the glass.

And finally we designed the recycling counters with the ability to adapt to future needs. I know this might seem strange but early on in the process we recognized that the configuration of the bins would have to change some day. Today we don’t have a comprehensive composting system but we likely will tomorrow. Maybe one day we would have to undo the co-mingled recycling stream or add a section for e-waste. So we took a novel approach and designed the signs on the bin so that they could be changed at any time. We even designed the openings on the bins so that they could be changed depending on whether you wanted a big square or a smaller circular hole.

So there you have it. We like to think that the lessons we learned about our bins could be used to help others create their own ‘better bins’. If I had to sum up all our lessons into a couple of points I would say;
  • listen to your community and let them be a part of the solution
  • be flexible, there are many things that can and will change so anticipate to the best of your knowledge
  • make things as easy as possible for the users, if it isn’t intuitive for them they won’t use it

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