Today I faced yet another user misusing the application's recycle bin as archive. When I offered him to empty it he went angry because he "always did so" and didn't want to lose his mails. The first time this happened to me it was a Windows user with the Windows Recycle Bin, now it is a Thunderbird user with Thunderbirds Recycle Bin. Both users are long-time computer users, but without computer knowledge. Both have studied and are mature (the current one is a 60 years old man). This case happened to me quite rarely, but it makes me wonder anyway: Is this a more common problem? What makes people assume that recycle bins are archives? Is there something wrong with the approach to store files before deletion in a thing called "Recycle Bin"? Are there better solutions to delete objects, but have a chance to restore them?

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    I think this also has something to do with 'real life' waste: once you throw something into a bin, it's still there until it has been completely emptied.
    – user68158
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 7:36
  • 2
    I once saw someone use Window's Recycle Bin as a temporary folder for moving files into and from there to where he wanted them. Of course, it was pointless telling him that the files he puts in there can automatically get deleted if they pass a certain size threshold. I think that some people, no matter how clear a UX is to others, will completely misuse it because they are used to doing things wrong based on wrong assumptions that are built on doing other things wrong based on wrong assumptions and so on... Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 10:00

6 Answers 6


My understanding was that Google conceived of the trash as a form of archive from the very beginning. As storage space grew people took it for granted that their emails would remain. Furthermore there have been numerous articles over the years that promoted the use of archiving over deleting emails.

The act of archiving an email in Gmail is taking it and placing it in a folder where it will continue to exist but will no longer be cluttering your inbox. The best part about this is that it will still be accessible in the future if needed. Gmail handles this task fantastically as it allows users to quickly and easily archive their emails.

Why you should archive your emails
Now imagine some amount of time in which you would have never needed to look back at that conversation or retrieve information from those emails but for some reason, now you do. If you deleted the email thread, you wouldn't be able to look back ...

8 Sep 2014

Privacy nerds pointed out the issues with storing emails indefinitely, but those concerns were overshadowed by the convenience of always being able to retrieve old emails.

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    Perhaps I'm too cynical, but I always assumed Gmail encouraged archive over delete so they could continue to mine the data for advertising.
    – cloudworks
    Commented Apr 30, 2019 at 10:48

Wherever people are using trash option they assumed that the deleted files are still there and they have the option to restore their files like in So this is very common practice to use trash as a archive specially in online services like "google drive", "One drive" etc.

I agree that this is wrong perspective but this is how people take it . because mostly services don't push them to delete the files they only intimate that your storage are low please manage your files etc. but if you want to forcefully delete the files you have to introduce the both "Trash" and "Archive" feature separately so you can easily tackle the situation according to your needs.


I think this is one of those things where the mental model of a user doesn't align with what designers intended. People associate the trash bin with a tool that stores something until further notice, rather than an instant delete button. Typically, this is caused by the fact that the use of a bin and a delete button are used interchangeably everywhere.

  • So are most people not aware that the "bin"s have a maximum size or in some more recent implementations a maximum age and when these maximums are reached things in there will be lost? Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 10:07
  • I'd say there are definitely users out there who see the trash bin as a storage unit. My parents are one of those haha. Doesn't matter if you tell them what it is meant for, they are used to using it in a way and it worked up until then. Commented Apr 19, 2019 at 8:09
  • Have you tried telling them not to eat out of the trash? :-) Commented May 6, 2019 at 20:33
  • Hehe. I think the issue started when they figured that things put into the trash bin (on the computer, mind you :-)), where still there months later. They now kind of use it as some weird archive that is sometimes fully cleared, or sometimes just 'moderated'. I haven't caught them eating out of the trash yet, but who knows what they do when I'm not there ;-) Commented May 7, 2019 at 9:17

It's pointing to the fact that in a world of almost infinite online capacity, it makes little sense for users to even think about whether they want to keep something or not.

What they want is a 'done' button for emails which will move them to an existing archive folder.

As creating folders takes a little bit of effort, these users have just repurposed the existing "delete / recycle bin".


I've had experience of this, but it was more to do with the icons being horribly similar than people misunderstanding what a recycle bin does. This was on the Outlook App for android.

The bin is the one on the left of the set of three icons, the archive is the one in the middle with the small 'handle cutout'. I was happily sending all the emails I wanted deleting to an archive :-)

Android Outlook App Toolbar


Thank you all for your answers and attempts to find the reason. In the meantime I could ask the user himself to get a first-hand answer and like to share it with you.

He has a clean inbox strategy and deletes e-mails with junk or currently no topical assignment regularly. His mental model of Thunderbird’s trash is that of a recycle bin in a medium-term meaning: deleted e-mails are kept for recycling for some years until he deletes them eventually. On the other hand my notion of the recycle bin was that of a trash can: a container to hold e-mails which will be deleted for sure after a short time. This difference was the reason why I could not understand his behavior (a nice example of "You are not the user.")

This user realized that the current strategy didn’t allow him to differ between e-mails for possible later recycling and real junk, so his trash folder became really big (which caused periodic Thunderbird freezes). I could help him out by showing him Thunderbirds archive feature which sorts e-mails into one folder per year by one single mouse-click, next to the button to move real junk to the trash folder.

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