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Are People Just Slobs or Is Your Bin the Wrong Color?

Posted by Michael J. Daley on 9/29/2015
This scene is every public space managers nightmare: a mountain of discards overflowing the bins heavily contaminated with non-recyclables. Confronted with such a unsightly disaster, you might be tempted to think: What's the matter with people? They treated my bin like a trash can! Are they slobs?

Maybe not. Maybe the problem is the color of your bin or the fact that it stands all on its lonesome without a trash can within (easy) sight. A study conducted at the University of Michigan revealed that only 52% of discards are recycled properly when trash and recycling containers are the same color. However, when recycling bins are color coded green and trash cans are grey, proper recycling of materials shot up to 88%.

Unfortunately, several other common faults besides color and placement can lead to discouraging results in public space programs.

Top Ten Tips for Avoiding the Blue Bin Blues

Of course, that mess represents a kind of success. Nearly 70% of people say they are willing to recycle IF it is convenient and comprehensible. Meeting that burden in public space situations where people are on the move and distracted is a special challenge. Education is a key factor. In fact, in a first ever national survey by Recycle Away and Keep America Beautiful, 31% of respondents indicated that their top wish list item was more funding for PR and Education. They also consider contamination to be a major issue.

But program managers need to understand that it isn't just the public that needs educating. They and their staff need to take advantage of the ever-growing understanding of how public recycling behavior is influenced by design and program parameters in public spaces. Based on their long partnership and in the field experience, Recycle Away and Keep America Beautiful have developed a list of best practices that should be part of your program. In your next staff meeting, you may want to asses how your current efforts rank against these proven principles.

    1. Make Recycling Simple and Convenient
    2. Know Your Waste Stream
    3. Place Recycling Next to Trash
    4. Use Restrictive Lids
    5. Use Clear, Simple Labels and Signage
    6. Choose the Right Bin
    7. Be Consistent
    8. Keep Bins Clean and Well Maintained
    9. Conduct Educational Outreach
    10. Adapt and Improve
Recycle Away president, Michael Alexander, along with Keep America Beautiful's director of recycling, Alec Cooley, have developed in-depth materials and presentations elaborating on each of these points. Additionally, you may want to consult resources like this Event Recycling Toolkit and the Recycling at Work website.

Coffee Break Version

Convenience and comprehension aren't only a best practice when dealing with the pubic. Since it will take more than a moment to plan that staff meeting, why not jump start the evaluation process by sharing this snappy, concise infographic of best practices with the key personnel in your program today?

Michael J. Daley is a childrens author, journalist, and renewable energy advocate living in Westminster, VT. You can see his work at

Photos courtesy of Keep America Beautiful