Promotion & Education

Public Space Signage

Signs are an important tool to communicate the behaviours we want to see right in the place they are meant to take place. But not all signs are created equal, and not all are effective. Below, we explore how to get the most out of signage.

Better Practices

High visibility

In crowded areas with multiple distractions, it is important to provide signage that can be easily seen from a distance. The use of bright colours and banners/flags can be effective in notifying the location of the bins to users. Bins that are blocked from view and/or located in shielded places can be visually enhanced by having signage posted just above the bins.

Banners need to be located close to the bins and large enough to be seen from a distance. Avoid objects that obstruct their view.

Keep messages clear & simple

When designing signage for public space bins keep in mind that the information conveyed to the user must allow them to make a decision in seconds. In a pilot project undertaken by York Region, surveyed park users indicated they spent fewer than five seconds reviewing signage on recycling and organic bins before deciding where to toss materials. “People are in ‘thinking-fast’ frame of mind when interacting with people or objects in public spaces. This mode of thinking means that decisions are based on emotion and gut reaction, not considered thought. This limits the amount of time that a recycling station has to engage with the user.”

To help facilitate the “quick” decision making process, it is important to use easily recognized, standardized messages such as “Garbage”, “Recycling”, “Organics” that most of the public understand. Avoid using industry jargon, such as “co-mingled” or “compostable”. Even the terms “Containers” and “Fibres” can cause confusion and may be interpreted to mean boxes, textiles, or food packaging. Terms such as “Bottles and Cans” and “Paper” result in less confusion and reduce the potential for misinterpretation.

Did you know? Some communities are replacing the term “Garbage” with “Landfill”, which acts as a stronger cue to the material’s final destination. Using signs and signals to remind people to act in a desired manner is called a prompt in community based social marketing.

Use universal colours

Specific colours have become universally recognized, in North America, in denoting waste diversion activities, such as blue for recyclinggreen for organics/composting and black for garbage/landfill. For decades Ontario communities have been using these colours in their curbside recycling programs. Using these colours for signage and bin colours helps to build on the standardization of existing waste diversion programs and signals.

Communities with a two stream recycling program will typically use blue for the container stream and a variety of colours for the fibre stream including grey (e.g. Simcoe County, St. Thomas), blue (e.g. Durham Region, City of Peterborough, North Bay), red (e.g. City of Windsor, Essex Windsor Solid Waste Authority) and yellow (e.g. British Columbia). It is more effective to mimic the colour already in use in the municipality’s recycling program for the fibre stream or consider coordinating colours with neighbouring municipalities to participate in future joint procurement activities.

Shared Experience

York Region. Public Space Three Stream Waste Diversion Parks Pilot, 2008

York Region developed signs for public space bins, which feature clear messaging and universally recognized colours for recycling, compost and garbage. Using the recognized colour as the sign background further strengthened the message and intent of the expected action. In addition, the Region linked the public space activity with the residential recycling program by putting an image of the residential containers used for recycling, composting and waste in the sign.

Pair graphics with text
Realistic images are more easily recognized and understood than icons.

The public responds best to signage that has both images and simple text explaining what to do.

People understand and respond to visual images better than text, especially in situations where a decision about how to use something (such as a recycling bin) is made in seconds. Graphics also overcome language barriers by focusing on images rather than words. Pairing the images with simple text, that support the images, can help to improve user understanding of the program and reduce contamination. It helps to use images of items that are commonly generated in the public space; for example, a recycling bin at a sports facility would show images of pop cans, water bottles and juice bottles paired with the word “Recycle”.

study conducted at the University of Toronto showed signage that combined images with text experienced the fastest recognition and shortest decision making time and achieved the highest diversion rates.

Shared Experience

268 Town of Whitby – Perfecting Indoor Public Space Recycling, 2011

The Town of Whitby focused on images to highlight the common items that could be placed in the organic “green” bin, or two stream container and fibre bins. Note that staff used the words “bottles and cans” rather than “containers” to help users more easily understand what recyclable materials should be placed in the recycling bin. The images of a pop can, water bottle and milk carton act as strong visual cues to further indicate what to put in the bin. Staff also used the word “paper” rather than the word “fibres” to encourage greater diversion of paper and paper products. The images of newspapers, magazines, boxboard and paper provide the visual cues as to what papers could be recycled.

The realistic images used on the four signs show items commonly generated in public space settings. The arrows further reinforce where to place the items.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Signage provides an important source of information on how to properly use the recycling stations. Despite its importance, not all signage provides beneficial information and can sometimes result in greater confusion. In this section, we explain why we rank some public space recycling stations and signage as more effective.