Key Considerations for Public Space Recycling

  • Density and placement of bins is the most critical factor in determining the efficacy of a public space recycling initiative. You need to be able to give people as many opportunities to recycle as possible, and ensure that those bins are placed in areas with the highest amounts of foot traffic
  • As a tangent to the above point, every garbage should ideally be accompanied by a recycling bin (and vice versa). Providing only one or the other either limits the opportunity to recycle, or results in significant contamination of collected recyclables (in recycling bin only scenarios)
  • Public space bins need to be kept clean and tidy. While any receptacle in a public area is going to be at a higher risk for illegal dumping and vermin, a failure to ensure cleanliness (either by allowing the bins to reach capacity before pick up, or other exogenous factors), will discourage the public from recycling (and may even lead to a negative attitude towards the behaviour over time)
  • Municipalities that have the requisite collection infrastructure in place may find automated cart collection for recyclables effective. However, these initiatives generally require a significant capital expense during initial implementation, which may restrict such investments to larger municipalities. However, the potential savings in labor/vehicle time, reduced incidences of workplace injury and other collection efficiencies may help rationalize the investment.
  • The type of bin you choose matters – there are benefits and drawbacks to various opening designs and multi stream recycling containers. Restricting openings to match the recycling stream can reduce cross contamination discourage illegal dumping, rain and snow egress and vermin. It does, however, result in fewer (but higher quality) tonnes collected. Multi stream bins are significantly more costly which may be an issue for smaller municipalities. They can, however, facilitate twinning of services, aid in matching public space recycling to existing municipal collection services (e.g., two stream collection) and present a neater collection point.
  • Contamination is always going to be an issue in public spaces – primarily food and animal waste (poop and scoop). It is difficult to address the former, as items consumed in public spaces (i.e. a pop) may have leftovers that a person cannot reasonably discard of. This further highlights that twinning of bins be a logical “first step” when implementing a public space recycling program. Providing the public the opportunity to dispose of unconsumed organic waste can potentially reduce the risk of contamination in the recycling stream. Signage (or Bin Labels) that clearly communicate what is/is not an acceptable material may also discourage contamination.
  • Promotion and education in public spaces needs to be clear and easy to understand. High quality pictures are more effective than text. While there is little consensus regarding what type of signs are most effective, “something is better than nothing”. Recycling bins that are not accompanied by signage divert fewer tonnes than those that did. Given the high rates of contamination in public spaces, it is the recommendation that P&E materials emphasise what “does/doesn’t” belong in the bin.
  • Monitoring and assessment is fundamental to the success of any public space program. Being able to establish baseline measures of how an area is being used, what types of waste/recyclables is being generated, can all aid municipalities in decided how to roll out their public space recycling programs. Ongoing monitoring of program performance is also necessary to ensure that adjustments can be made when needed, and to identify what specific initiatives are driving the greatest results.
  • Municipalities may want to consider promotion and education materials that are a-typical to the space. Whatever behavioral change that public space P&E results in, is usually achieved at the project onset – as soon as the signage becomes part of the built environment, its efficacy diminishes. It simply blends into the landscape for regular patrons, and visitors are unlikely to feel a perceived moral obligation to recycle in a given space as they are not part of the community (not to say that they don’t recycle, but they are less likely to do so out of perceived normative pressures). As such, developing “new” promotion and education signage on a regular basis (monthly, quarterly etc.) or alternatively, implement something that is a-typical to the space (visually jarring, clearly doesn’t belong) may produce the best results. While the latter may contravene the expected aesthetic, there is demonstrable evidence to indicate that people not only respond to this type of signage, but it becomes a quirky novelty that people never forget.