If you delete something in Windows OS, it will go to Recycle bin. But if you think about it nothing recycles in it right?

Say, you delete a virus infected file and again restore it from recycle bin it won't get recycled or disinfected! right?

So why name it "recycle"? I think Mac or Linux gets it right with Trash.

  • 4
    I don't think "trash" is a good word. "Recycle bin" is better since it denotes the fact that you can take the file back if needed
    – phuclv
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 17:22
  • 2
    "Trash" was not working so well for Mac. At least not by the time Microsfoft choose "Recycling Bin". Mac had to call it "Wastebasket" in English-GB and English-International editions. That for sure was making for a lot of headache in all books and instructional materials.
    – Olaf
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 20:16
  • 12
    Well, technically you do "recycle" the only resource that a file uses: Disk space. Granted, personally I think it's silly to "recycle" a non-scarce, inexpensive resource. It's not like when you empty the so-called "Recycling bin" the truck takes your files to the recycling facility, while files in Mac's "Trash" are just dumped into the landfill and you never get the space back until they rot after a few years.
    – Superbest
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 20:57
  • 5
    Am I the only person who thinks the words "Empty recycle bin" are poorly chosen? It sounds far too much like you're going to tip out the bin's contents onto the floor, so you can find the thing you didn't mean to delete. "Oh dear, I just deleted a file that I didn't mean to. I'd better empty out my recycle bin so I can get it back." Or maybe it's just me. Commented Apr 20, 2014 at 18:07
  • 7
    @LưuVĩnhPhúc No, the term "recycle bin" does not denote that you can take the item back. Taking an item back from a recycle bin isn't called recycling, especially when the item is used for the same purpose or a closely-related purpose; recycling is the process which happens when the recycling people empty your recycle bin and take the stuff away. Items can be taken back from trash bins or from recycle bins alike, but taking them back from recycle bins is usually more sanitary, because recycle bins tend not to contain raw, organic garbage such as decomposing food remains.
    – Kaz
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 20:54

11 Answers 11


Before and during the development of Windows 95, Microsoft was being sued by Apple for allegedly having improperly copied the Mac OS GUI.

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_Computer,_Inc._v._Microsoft_Corp:

Apple lost all claims in the Microsoft suit except for the ruling that the trash can icon and folder icons from Hewlett-Packard's NewWave windows application were infringing.

Based on this, I conclude that Microsoft chose the "Recycle Bin" metaphor to avoid, as much as possible, the risk of being accused of infringing on Apple's "Trash".

  • 23
    I feel like there's some pun-like humor in this.
    – leigero
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 6:59
  • 3
    @O.R.Mapper I think he's comparing "Apple's 'Trash'" to a piece of trash. Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 16:27
  • 4
    Although I think this is a very important point, technically this answer really just tells us why MS did not choose "Trash", not why they chose "Recycling Bin" instead. They could have chosen something else.
    – Luke
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 16:37
  • 5
    @Luke what wold they have chosen? The real world metaphors are not exactly numerous. Drain? Toilet? A Recycle Bin is a better metaphor than a Trash Can, because recovering accidentally discarded stuff from recycle bins is somewhat cleaner than recovering it from trash cans. Also, when the trash or recycle bin or whatever is "emptied", the bits are in fact perfectly recycled for making new files.
    – Kaz
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 20:52
  • 2
    @Kax I like 'toilet'! Think of the interactions and sound effects!
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 17:47

Much of what Microsoft initiated with Windows 95, including the Start Menu, served primarily to differentiate it from Mac OS, which in the popular mindset was the only OS competing with Windows.

This coupled with the rise in attention to ecological needs in the 1990s made the term "Recycle Bin" an apt way to accomplish this differentiation, without serving any specific UX need.

  • 2
    I agree with you, I don't think that there was any UX choice there... Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 13:52
  • 16
    "Much of what Microsoft initiated with Windows 95 ... served primarily to differentiate it from Mac OS"[citation needed]
    – user
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 21:59
  • You cited differentiation but didn't explain from what. Please add the name of the Recycle bin on Mac OS at this time. Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 16:17
  • 1
    I think that's true. Like Windows putting icons on the right instead of left. You want your windows on the right since you read right to left, so putting the icons on the left is natural. But it had to be different (for whatever reason), so they go on the right.
    – Almo
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 15:09

If you take a tomato back out of a real-life recycle bin, it also doesn't get recycled. Nor does it get disinfected (unless you actively do that).

However, if you leave it in there and the bin gets emptied, both eventually get recycled. The tomato the traditional way, the file because its bits on your hard disk get made available again for storing other files.

So recycling is actually a close metaphor to the actual behaviour, more so than the "trash".

  • 9
    The current content of the file is "trash", the storage it occupies is "recyclable" :-) Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 16:55
  • 1
    I'm not convinced of that explanation. I always thought the recycling taking place must be the action of restoring a file, not of permanently deleting it. Note that you put stuff into the recycle bin specifically for being able to restore it. If recycling were about the bits becoming available again, then deleting a file should be named recycling, whereas placing something in the recycle bin, it is effectively not making the bits available again until the bin happens to be emptied (which, for some users, can take a loooong time ;-) ). Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 9:30
  • @O. R. Mapper The primary definitions for the word "recycle" on Merriam-Webster imply that an object is in some way made into something new. (The closest to your meaning is "use again", but that's the 3rd in the list) What you're talking about would more aptly be called "restore".
    – uliwitness
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 17:18
  • @uliwitness: Then why is delete (as in, immediate deletion, without using the recycle bin) not named recycle? Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 17:25
  • Because the "delete" key has "delete" written on it and they didn't want to change all keyboard hardware? Keep in mind, the original implementation of this (in MacOS) called it Trash, not Recycle. Even though you could take items back out. The command there wasn't called "delete" (which would be immediate) but "Move to Trash".
    – uliwitness
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 17:29

I am not sure when Windows introduced that word, but if it was since Windows 95, as Bart Gijssens's answer claims, then Microsoft is not the first one to come up with the idea of recycling. NeXT STEP operating system introduced at around 1988 had a recycling mark as the icon for its counterpart. Microsoft may have gotten the idea from there. Your question should be attributed to NeXT computer, not Microsoft.

enter image description here (Image taken from http://www.fanboy.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/nextstep-os.jpg)

  • You can also see from that screenshot that Microsoft lifted the design of the Windows 95 window controls from NeXTSTEP. Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 10:15

In Windows, the recycle bin was introduced in Windows 95. (source used)

Of course, Microsoft took their idea from other OS'es that had it long before. On most OS'es, dragging a file to the trashcan meant: Delete the file.

This is where the word "recycle" comes in. Microsoft was looking for a way to make clear that moving items to the trash does not delete those items. They are "stored" in the trash for later deletion. It's only when the user empties trash that the items are deleted. Or you can restore the items to their original location. And that's what they mean with "recycling".

  • 1
    That was definitely not the case for the Mac (arguably the first to popularize having a trash instead of just pressing the delete key). What OSes do you know that immediately delete files put in the trash?
    – uliwitness
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 12:57
  • DOS command prompt (erase command).
    – Phil Perry
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 15:27
  • 1
    It also could be "recycling" your harddrive space.
    – Luke
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 16:33
  • 2
    @uliwitness OS/2 in 1992 had the "shredder" which immediately deleted any file dropped on it. Here are screenshots of OS/2 2.0, including one of the default desktop, showing the shredder icon (bottom right).
    – user
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 22:01
  • 1
    @uliwitness well, Windows deletes immediately in several cases: if there's no room (memory) to store in the trash, or if you're deleting a file on a server-mount which doesn't allow you to dump to a "global" recycle bin. Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 16:34

I can't speak for Microsoft, but I've always liked the recycling bin metaphor as it works on so many levels:

  • Recycling is more eco-friendly than garbage and the recycling bin metaphor is a form of corporate green-washing. By aligning themselves with a recycling bin instead of the more ubiquitous trashcan, Microsoft is implying something about their corporate culture and motivations.

  • Recycle bins, as a concept, are less likely to disgust than trash cans are. Imagining an overflowing trash and you're thinking of a wasteful community, perhaps even of rodents and disease. An overflowing recycling bin can inspire the idea of an clean, efficient, and futuristic community.

  • When you empty it, you aren't throwing away the hard drive space... you're making it available to be used again. This is a direct analog to recycling.

  • I doubt item 3 is the recycling that was meant here. When you delete a file, specifically without using the recycle bin, the hard drive space is made available to be used again immediately. As opposed to putting something in the recycle bin, where the hard drive space is still occupied for the time being. Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 9:37

As discussed at the time:

Microsoft considered the word "trash", considered that the reason for having this was to allow people to take things back out of the "trash" before they were permanently discarded, considered that many people have a "yuck!" reaction to the idea of putting their hands into the trash bin (thinking of it as kitchen trash or otherwise unpleasant)...

... and decided that "recycle bin" avoided the yuck factor.

  • 6
    Do you have a source for this?
    – Luke
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 16:33
  • 4
    Presentations by MS staff at the time Windows NT was announced. I don't have a written citation, but it was Very Explicitly Discussed In These Terms.
    – keshlam
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 17:16
  • 1
    I'm sure you're (at least partially) correct, just not sure if 'VEDITT' counts as a cited source.
    – Luke
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 21:18
  • 1
    @Superbest Windows NT hit the market in July 1993.
    – user
    Commented Apr 18, 2014 at 22:06
  • 1
    Feel free not to consider it a cited source. It may lead someone to a citable source, however, if that's your goal.
    – keshlam
    Commented Apr 19, 2014 at 4:01

The files which are deleted are in fact recycled. The material from which they are made -- storage bits -- is regrouped and reused for other files, just like recycled plastic can be used to make something new, like a synthetic fiber sweater.

The metaphor is much older than Microsoft Windows.

"Garbage collection" was introduced in the late 1950's in the Lisp programming language.

But in fact garbage collection performs recycling (the term typically used is "storage reclamation"). Digital objects which have become "garbage" are turned into storage for new objects.

Memory and disk storage are a "serially reusable" resource: when a program no longer needs it, another one can use it.

Recycling of computer storage is in fact a more perfect form of recycling than, say, plastic or paper which are usually only "downcycling": recovering an inferior form of raw material compared to the original.

The recycle bin doesn't actually recycle anything, just like a real recycle bin where items sit until the real disposal takes place which initiates the recycling process. Just like a real recycling bin, the Windows one lets us change our minds: the same way we can take back a plastic bottle from our recycle bin, we can restore a deleted file. This restore action is not understood as recycling: in computing it is called "recovery" and in physical disposal it is usually called "reuse", rather than "recycling". (Though, by metonymy, sometimes the reuse of materials is referred to recycling; something made of re-used objects which were never actually thrown away is sometimes said to be "made of recycled goods". However, these goods are not reused for their original purpose. If we use a plastic beverage bottle for carrying drinking water, that is not called recycling.)

When we "empty the recycle bin", that is analogous to someone taking away our recycled material to a recycling center. At that point, the opportunity to recover a file is lost, just like the opportunity to reuse a plastic bottle.

Deleting a file without going to the recycle bin (for instance, using Shift-Delete in Windows Exporer to delete permanently) is analogous to taking an item directly to the recycling depot, bypassing the local recycle bin. Once an item is handed over to the depot, it cannot be recovered.

The recycling analogy holds very well because computer storage is a real, physical resource; the recycling is just as real as that of plastic. Storage bits are real three-dimensional objects. These bits have a location in space, mass, volume and so on. Why we have to recycle them is that there are only so many available in a device, which has to do with physical constraints. There being only 32Gb on a flash chip is no different from, say, there only being so many liters of water on a planet.

So, Microsoft has considerable technical justification in calling that system feature "Recycle Bin". Yet, it has been called "Trash" or similar in other systems. Perhaps, part of the motivation is simply to be different and to tip a hat, so to speak, to the recycling movement. The recycle bin says "I am of this age; I think about the environment, and encourage people who look at me to do the same".

  • I don't think that is a good explanation: The files which are deleted immediately (specifically without using the recycle bin) are "recycled" (based on your interpretation) much more immediately than those placed in the recycle bin. Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 9:38
  • @O.R.Mapper Similarly, unwanted stuff that you take directly to a recycling facility is recycled much more immediately than something you put in a recycling box for later collection. Sorry, I don't see your point.
    – Kaz
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 12:31
  • Unwanted stuff that you throw away without any recycling is not recycled at all in the real world, whereas unwanted stuff that you permanently delete without going through recycle-anything in Windows is immediately recycled (in terms of free disk storage space). My point is that there are two ways to delete files - via recycle bin, and directly. With your interpretation of what recycling refers to - storage space - both of those methods involve recycling. When interpreting recycling as referring to restoring temporarily-deleted files, recycling only occurs with the one deletion ... Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 12:56
  • ... method that is called recycle-something. Hence, the latter seems to be more convincing as an explanation for the name. Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 12:59
  • @O.R.Mapper Recycling never refers to restoring deleted files (pulling them out of the recycle bin). Similarly, if you change you mind about some plastic bottle and pull it back out of your recycle bin, that is not recycling; it is called reuse. See the popular motto, "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!". Permanent deletion in Windows is recycling. Just like if you take a plastic bottle to a recycling facility, you will never see it again; but if you put it into your own recycle box, you have an opportunity to change your mind.
    – Kaz
    Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 19:02

The most likely reason is probably since when you're deleting a file, you're not recycling the file, you're recycling the hard drive space and making it available for use.

Also, the use of the term "recycle bin" is more environmentally friendly than a trash can, and might imply something about goals Microsoft may or may not make to help the environment be less contaminated with waste.

  • That doesn't sound like a good explanation: When you delete a file permanently, you explicitly do not put it into the recycle bin, but that is when the disk space gets "recycled" (based on your interpretation) immediately. Contrast with, when you put a file into the recycle bin, and you never empty it (which most certainly happens on quite some systems ;-) ), the hard disk space never gets "recycled". (Under-the-hood tricks with compression aside, but some space will still be occupied.) Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 9:34
  • Well, in a real recycle bin, the files aren't really recycled until the bin is emptied. Commented Apr 21, 2014 at 23:22
  • But when deleting files immediately, without using the recycle bin, the disk space in use is made reusable just as well. Thus, making the disk space usable again is not the distinguishing factor of the recycle bin. Restoring files, on the other hand, is. Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 5:47
  • I guess deleting a file permanently without going through the recycle bin is like sending an item directly to a recycling company... I'm not sure what else to say. I don't usually delete files permanently like this, I put them in the Recycle Bin and later permanently delete them. Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 18:18

I've got no actual references for this but it fits closer with Microsoft Office paradigm. In the workplace (possibly still Microsoft's largest user base), users were mainly using their computers for word processing and spreadsheets. Paper is a recyclable material and hence you should be putting paper in a recycling bin rather than general waste.

  • For me, this is the most considered and likely answer to the question of why Recycling Bin was chosen. Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 10:12

It is called a 'Recycling Bin' because the files in it can be taken out at any moment, unless you bypass the recycling bin and delete it straight away by holding the SHIFT key while performing an action that would normally send a file to the trash. The fact that you can restore and 'recycle' your work back onto your computers hard drive.

  • 1
    This isn't really saying anything that other answers here already have - such as Bart's post from a few days ago.
    – JonW
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 13:38
  • There isn't much to say that Bart hasn't already mentioned though. I was just giving a simplified explanation. Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 13:39
  • It also doesn't really address the metaphor differences, as you can take something out of the trash as easily as the recycle bin.
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 22, 2014 at 17:53

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.