Public Space Recycling – A Review of Better Practices

Public spaces have their own unique issues to manage when setting up collection programs. They can be a broad range of situations and the types and quantities of waste generated can vary significantly depending on who uses the space and how it is used.

To assist municipalities with designing a successful program, the CIF has identified a number of ‘better practices’ related to public space recycling. These recommendations are based on research from more than 20 CIF-funded projects where municipalities across Ontario tested various aspects of public space recycling, including bin selection, placement, usability, contamination and costs.

Four important lessons learned

Public spaces are often associated with badly contaminated recyclables. The research undertaken through these projects and work in other communities identified four common reasons why municipalities encounter this problem and simple solutions that can improve the capture rate and quality of materials by over 10%.

  • Keep messages clear & simple: Signs must help users understand in seconds what is required of them. Simple text (e.g. ‘Recycling’, ‘Organics’ and ‘Landfill’) instantly indicates which bin to use.
  • Use North American (NA) universal colours: Ontario communities typically use the NA universally recognized colours for recycling (blue), organics (green), and garbage (black). These colours are the first thing the public visually recognizes from a distance.
  • Pair graphics with text: The public responds best to signage that has both images and simple text explaining what to do.
  • High visibility: Making all signage visible from a distance is important. An unfound bin is an unused bin.
  • Twin the bins: To reduce cross contamination, place recycling and/or organics with garbage bins.
  • Place bins side-by-side: Place the openings of the bin so that they line up and face in the same direction.
  • Replicate the Blue Box program: Allow users to place the same materials in the public space bins as in the residential Blue Box program.
  • Empty the bins regularly: To avoid cross-contamination and litter, empty bins regularly or use high capacity bins
  • Place bins in high traffic areas: Users will not walk far to participate so maximize effectiveness in high traffic areas.
  • Select convenient/visible location: Bins must be visible and easy to access to optimize use.
  • Durability: Select bins for either outdoor or indoor, permanent or temporary use. Outdoor bins must withstand inclement weather conditions like sun, rain, sleet, snow and wind and be sturdy enough to resist vandalism or unauthorized removal.
  • Aesthetic appeal: The looks of a bin can attract or repel users. Cues like visual appeal, cleanliness, insects and attractive signage associated with the bin will impact a user’s decision to participate or not.
  • Vandalism: The potential for vandalism must be addressed when deciding on the type of public space bin to use. Review the location, lighting and vulnerability to vandalism/removal when selecting bins.
  • Bin opening: The size and shape of bin opening requires three questions to be addressed: what material will be recycled, how the bin will be used and where the bin will be located. Different shaped openings can act as visual cues for users.
  • Bin size: Selecting the right size of bin will depend on several factors including: usage, space limitations and collection schedule.

What is a Public Space?

Public spaces from a municipal perspective can include:

  • Parks
  • Downtown streetscapes
  • Recreation centers and arenas
  • Beaches
  • Playgrounds
  • Bus stops
  • Public buildings and associated activities such as special events and farmers markets
  • Municipal airports
Public space recycling and waste bins ready for action at Barrie's waterfront

Take-Aways and Other Program Planning Considerations

Our research indicates that municipalities can directly influence the performance of their public space recycling programs by implementing these simple ‘better practices.’ It is important to remember, however, that none of these practices, on their own, will guarantee success; rather, it usually requires a combination of them. It’s also important to recognize that each setting is unique.

Developing an effective public space recycling program requires consideration of the environment in which the program will operate. For example, who will be using the public space and what factors will affect the amount and type of recoverable and non-recoverable materials available for recycling and recovery?

Audits of garbage containers in public space areas can be conducted prior to program implementation to get a better understanding of the percent of recoverable materials. For example, if it is determined that there is very little paper in the garbage stream, purchase of recycling containers with openings and signage designed for beverage containers may be more appropriate. Similarly, if there are very little organics in the garbage stream, then it may not be worth purchasing a separate bin for organics.

Clear, visual signage in spaces used by out of town visitors is critical since they may not know the local recycling program and English may be a secondary language.

Want to know more?

The CIF’s public space recycling and signage page offers a wealth of information laid out in a convenient, drill-down format. When you go to the page, simply click the Read More below the button on the topic that interests you to jump to the detailed information you need. These pages provide explanations of better practices and plenty of examples, discussion and supporting research to help you be successful.