Public Spaces

Public space recycling refers to collection in locations accessible to the public including outdoors like parks, sports, events or indoors like airports, malls, arenas etc. Attention to design and usability is required to implement an effective program. Simply setting some old barrels in public locations is no longer adequate.

The CIF has funded many projects to test aspects of public space recycling covering bin selection, placement, usability, contamination and costs. 

CIF Funded Projects: Public Spaces
CIF Connections Blog: Public Spaces
Other Public Space Reports

Keep America Beautiful. Planning for Public Space: 10 Tips for Designing Public Space Recycling Programs

The report identifies and describes 10 tips for developing public space recycling programs including: recycling must be simple and convenient, know your waste stream, pair recycling and garbage bins together, use restrictive lids, use simple, clear labels and signage, choose the right bin, be consistent, keep bins clean and maintained, educational outreach, and be prepared to be ready to improve.

Citizen Centered Services: New forms in public space recycling

Thesis study examining at how to help citizens sort their waste properly in a public context involving a two year design research in partnership with Metro Vancouver. Employs user observations, ethnographic research, co-creation and user testing that results in a finding for the need for participatory design to create effective public space services, called citizen centered services. Research conducted to design new recycling stations to decrease contamination. Identifies barriers to recycling (e.g. people think fast in public spaces) and involves public in research, surveys, and workshops. Interesting redesign of bins.

Eureka Recycling. Development of Best Practices in Public Space Recycling

Justifies public space recycling by reporting that according to the Beverage Packaging Environment Council, 31% by amount (34% by weight) of all beverage containers are consumed away from home. The authors argue that there are certain universal characteristics and challenges that impact recycling in all types of public spaces. Report explores contamination, education of users, etc. Puts ideas into action by designing public space recycling in three public venues. Discuss using green teams, engaging public, and using public art as part of design.

Sustainability Victoria. Public Place Recycling Toolkit

A public place recycling toolkit was developed by the Government of Victoria to help organizations or municipalities develop public space recycling programs. The toolkit addresses project planning principles based on four steps:

  1. Research,
  2. Design,
  3. Implement,
  4. Maintain and monitor.

The toolkit provides checklists, case studies, design considerations, bin placement considerations, and bin fullness and contamination inspection sheets.

Comparative Analysis of Visual Triggers in Waste Management

The authors argue that the decision to participate in recycling is based on three independent factors, which include the person’s attitudes towards the behavior (favorable or unfavorable); the perceived social pressure to perform behavior and perceived difficulty of performing the behavior. Students at the University of Toronto conducted a pilot study at the Mississauga campus to test different visual triggers at public space recycling bins and their impact on decision-making time and waste sorting behaviors.

Tested three types of signage: text only, visual only and text and visuals. Compared with baseline and conducted waste audits. Results: text only signage resulted in the lowest participation and diversion rates and higher incidences of contamination. Visual only signage resulted in improved participation and diversion rates with lower contamination compared with text only signage. Combined text and visual signage resulted in highest participation and diversion rates and lowest contamination rates because the visuals on the signage included specific items common on campus that should be recycled or disposed, which had a positive effect on sorting behavior.

Doug McKenzie-Mohr: Community Based Social Marketing

Community based social marketing uses two-way interaction/engagement to help foster behaviour change. The tools of engagement include prompts, commitment, norms, communication/outreach, and incentives.  According to the document the approach relies on four steps: 1) Identifying the barriers and benefits to an activity, 2)Developing a strategy that utilizes “tools” that have been shown to be effective in changing behavior, 3) Piloting the strategy, and 4) Evaluating the strategy once it has been implemented across a community

Public Space Three Stream Waste Diversion Parks Pilot

York Region partnered with Newmarket to test different bins and signs at its parks and trails. Evaluated different bin styles identifying pros and cons and tested them. Tested different types of signage including labels, flags, banners. Signage used both text and visuals. Tested preference for different language with the public. The pilot assessed level of contamination in new containers, effectiveness of messaging, and operational challenges and potential solutions of the new system. The results of the waste audits found that contamination in recycling bins was 23% and 11% in the organics bin. Good discussion of challenges with each style of bin. While contamination was higher than desired, the Region still felt that public space recycling was worthwhile.

Learn more about the better practices of public space recycling below.

Program details

Replicate the residential blue box program

To minimize confusion, it is best to replicate the Blue Box recycling program provided locally to residents. Communities with 2 stream recycling programs must decide whether to provide container and fibre recycling bins in public space locations. Mirroring the residential recycling program helps to minimize confusion and reduce cross-contamination. It is a good rule of thumb to provide maximum recycling opportunities at most public space locations, whenever possible.

Some public space locations (e.g. walking trails, sports fields) where users generate mostly recyclable containers (pop cans, water bottles, juice bottles) and very little fibre/paper, may offer only a container recycling option. Other locations, such as public transportation hubs where people enter/exit public transit, food courts and streets/sidewalks will tend to generate both types of recyclables, containers and should have two stream recycling available.

It is recommended to conduct an evaluation of the additional costs to add the fibre stream (e.g. the cost of a tri-sorter or multi-sorter) versus the added costs of higher fiber contamination in the container stream. In the end, it may be cheaper to invest in the tri-sorter or multi-sorter.

Service the bins regularly

If one bin is full and overflowing then regardless of the twinned location, users will be more inclined to deposit unwanted materials in the emptier bin. The same principle applies to bins that are messy and attracting insects, especially bees or wasps, the user will be more inclined to place material in the cleaner bin.

If the bins are always full at collection time, consider increasing the capacity of the bins by installing higher capacity bins or adding more.

Source (left):<br>Source (right):

Bin placement

High traffic areas

Users will not walk far to participate so maximize effectiveness by placing bins in high traffic areas.

Take the time to identify high traffic routes so that the bins are placed in the most optimal locations. At a minimum, bins should be located at entrance and exit points where people are ready to dispose of materials and in locations where people eat or rest.

For some communities, placing recycling bins in high traffic areas sends a message that the environment matters in the community and reinforces the waste diversion message. According to the City of Sarnia Public Spaces Recycling Pilot Project Report, “because bins are normally placed in high-traffic, highly visible locations, a jurisdiction can demonstrate to both residents and tourists that waste diversion is a priority.”

Collection crews and parks staff often know where and when people use public spaces. Work with staff to identify suitable locations for recycling bins and take the time to map traffic flows in areas where bins are being considered.

Convenient Locations

Bins must be visible and easy to access to optimize use. Placing the bins in high traffic areas also requires that the bins are visible and easy to access. People often save their waste and recyclables until leaving a site and will not travel far to look for the bin. Bins that are hidden from view or out of the way or difficult to access will not be used. For bins to be effective they must be visible, easy to access and easy to use.

Twin the bins

Placing garbage and recycling (and organic) bins separate from one another will result in high cross-contamination problems as users will be more inclined to deposit unwanted material in the closest bin regardless of the purpose of the bin. According to one report titled “Planning for Success: Ten Tips for Designing Public Space Recycling Programs“, people will walk no more than a couple of feet to place materials in the correct bin. “Some people will use the first one they come across regardless of how it is labeled, even if it is separated by only a couple feet or placed on opposite ends of a park bench. The further apart they are, the greater the risk of cross-contamination you’re likely to experience.” Twinning bins together eliminates the inconvenience factor in deciding how to manage unwanted material.

Source: SF Environment (left) and (right)
Place bins with openings facing the same direction

As with twinning, bins that are placed back-to-back (such that the user must go around one bin to reach another) will result in higher cross-contamination since the user will be more inclined to use the bin that is closest to them. Bins that are placed side-by-side with the openings facing the same way will encourage proper use.

Source (left): City of Toronto – 548.7 - Public Space Recycling Project Assessment (Phase I & 2) <br> Source (right):

Bin types


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.

Depending on where the bins are to be located, e.g. outdoors or indoors, and for how long, e.g. permanently or temporarily, will affect how durable the bins need to be. Bins that are permanently placed in more remote areas may need to be made of metal or rough duty plastic and may need to be bolted to a concrete base. Bins located in high traffic areas may not need to be as durable but may need to be more aesthetically appealing to attract users.

Exposure to different weather conditions (such as rain, sleet, snow and wind) will also impact the durability requirements of the bins.


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. Do not discount the importance of appeal. Bins that are poorly maintained or look dirty or broken are less likely to be used by the public, whereas bins that are appealing and offer good, attractive signage are more likely to be used.

Make sure the bins are colour coded based on the NA universal colour codes – blue for recyclablesgreen for organics and black for garbage. The colour of the bin is the first thing that the user views from a distance and signals that they can recycle or compost their materials.


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. The potential for vandalism must be addressed when deciding on bin type. Bins located in remote or obscured areas can be subject to more vandalism. Some bin structures are more prone to vandalism than others; for example, round bins (e.g. drums) can be easily rolled and moved from their original location and plastic bags in wire mesh bins can be easily torn and tampered with.

In order to minimize vandalism, the bins may need to be bolted down to cement pads or chained to a wall or fence. Stainless steel bins may need to be used in locations that are subject to graffiti since these can be effectively cleaned using a paint thinning solution.

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. Making a decision about the size and shape of the bin opening requires the what, how and where questions to be addressed.

  • What materials will be permitted – this helps identify the size of the bin opening. Garbage bin openings are typically larger than recycling bin openings to discourage users from placing bags of garbage or large items in the recycling stream.
  • How the bins are to be used – this helps to decide on the shape of the opening. Bins designated for containers typically have a round opening, while bins designated for papers may have a slit opening. Some bins use the same shape of opening regardless of the intended use.
  • Where the bins will be located. This helps to decide whether the openings need to be protected from the weather and/or animals and insects.

Other considerations include the need to provide openings that are safe, i.e. smooth, with no sharp edges and providing openings that minimize the need to touch the bin when depositing materials. In addition, a survey performed in York Region found that in general, park users did not like touching the lids of waste and recycling receptacles, especially if they were sticky or dirty. That means asking people to lift a lid to deposit material will not work effectively, unless bears necessitate it.

Bins used to have rubber flap around the openings to reduce intrusion by pests and vermin but communities found that the rubber flap discouraged people from using the bins once they became dirty or sticky. Now most bins avoid using any flap around the opening. Keeping the opening clean and free of mess is important. Frequent servicing, including cleaning and disinfecting with simple bleach, reduces insect infestations.

Bin Size

Selecting the right bin size will depend on several factors including: usage, space limitations and collection schedule. Bins that are located in remote locations and not easily accessed should have a larger capacity to reduce the number of collections. In-ground units have been used in provincial parks and municipal parks because they reduce the number of collections required and keep the material protected from the elements and stored in the cool underground. These large capacity bins require amble space to accommodate their size and collection needs. Bins that are needed in heavy traffic areas, such as business areas and streets/sidewalks, need to be slim in design with limited capacity. Tri-sorters work well in these high traffic areas where space is limited but collection is more frequent. Large carts and large steel bins (e.g. 360 litres) work well in playgrounds, picnic areas, and parks where collection access is fairly infrequent and capacity is ample.