In my office space we have a main trash can and "recycling" can in the break room. They are simply two bins, with the same color, that are hidden in a cabinet. Outside of the cabinet are two doors, one door saying "recycling" and the other saying "trash".

However, it seems the issue here is, more often than not, people are just constantly dumping trash into the recycling bin, and despite signs we've put up around the break rooms and cafeterias proclaiming "Please do not put trash in the Recycling Bins!" nothing has come to fruition and trash is still getting placed in recycling bins. We've tried color coded bins in the past; that didn't work either, so management has put just two identical bins of the same color. We've tried large symbols of bottles and other recyclables on one bin, and placing a picture of trash bags on the other bin, but this hasn't worked either.

What's the most user friendly way and easiest way to get people to put the right thing in the right bin?

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    I think this is a global issue. I've seen that done so many times even in my office.
    – UXerUIer
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 19:13
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    I'm not sure what country or state you're in. Recycling standards are different in different places (plastic? cans only? plastic containers with food inside?). What kind of trash are you seeing in the recycling bins?
    – tohster
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 19:56
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    In an office I'll bet 90% of the recyclables are bottles and cans, so placing a lid with a hole in it just big enough for bottles and cans on the recycle container will get you some benefit.
    – obelia
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 22:44
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    @obelia Why don't you post that as an answer? Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 18:35
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    They don't comply because they don't share your values and it's not important to them. You could revalue compliance with a camera and a wall of shame. Most likely they'll put their trash in someone else's desk bin, probably yours if they know you're responsible for the inconvenience.
    – Peter Wone
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 11:03

17 Answers 17


Place empty cans and bottles on a table instead

There is only one way to stop all people from putting trash in a recycle bin and that is by not having a recycle bin. This might mean more recyclable items go in the trash but I think most people will learn the system with a few cans and bottles on a table close by with a sign that says, "Please put empty cans and bottles on this table". The keeper of the bin would then need to go and collect all the cans and bottles at the end of the day.

Clearly it would be better if everyone would follow the system and only put appropriate items in the recycle bin

Some trash is inevitable once you provide a recycle bin but the following ideas may help...

1. Make it easier to add recycled items to the bin

It should be as clear as possible without much thinking to know what can be recycled where. This can be achieved by using large clear words, pictures, colors, or a number of other ways. The point here being that a small word or icon saying Recycle isn't clear enough. I need to know the system from across the room even if I don't have anything in my hand to discard at this very moment.

enter image description here

2. Make it harder to add trash to the bin

This can be done by making a small hole the size of a can as the lid for a bin that recycles aluminum cans. Of course trash can be any size but by making the lid fit a specific recyclable item makes it more likely that what you think goes in there is what the user puts in there.

enter image description here

3. Make it easier to put trash where it goes

Users are more likely to put trash in the proper bin if it is close by, clearly marked, and easily accessible. Placing the bins on opposite sides of the room will only end with more trash in the recycling bin or more recycling in the trash bin since humans in a hurry just want to get rid of the thing in their hands and will throw it in the bin that's closest to them.

4. Education

If you have each employee attend a short training meeting over by the recycling and trash bins, teach which items go where and how the system works, allow them to ask questions and discuss why recycling is important to the community at large then people will feel more of an obligation around the recycle bin and less likely to mindlessly toss in trash.


I think an aspect that hasn't been discussed are social dynamics, particularly, how can we use social indicators to incentivize behavioral change.

A nice parallel is how hotels have nudged people to reuse towels. Simply stating that by reusing one's towel is better for the environment had a nominal effect. What had a larger impact was stating that X% of the people who have stayed in this room (making it relevant to them) reused their towels, saving an average of X number of trees, water. A solution would revolve around this social dynamic...70% of the people in this department recycled their waste. In other words, you're part of a minority that doesn't recycle. There's a herd mentality, so finding the right metric is important to support your desired action. This can also change depending on your level of success.

Another approach, is to make it competitive. Dept vs Dept, or branch vs branch, or company vs competitor.

I realize that these solutions may be not be freezable without reliable data (but that's a different problem) or beyond your desired level of effort.

  • One issue I can see with this approach is that only X number of people would care enough to go out of their way to do so (if said thing was out of their way). Now, if that person sees another person do Y action first, they feel more obligated to follow the social norm, and are more likely to--in this case--reuse their towels. So in that scenario too, I'd be interested in knowing the number of people whom stayed in each room and what the success rate was of single to more than two visitors.
    – AzKai
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 23:22

A different approach perhaps: make users of the bins 'agree' to what they are putting inside them, so that they actually read what type of bin it is.

Imagine the below is the lid of the bin, with the OK 'button' being the handle to open the bin.



This is more than a reading issue. You are trying to change people's behavior.

This break room recycling can - is it for bottles (plastic/glass) only? Do you have other bins for paper elsewhere?

Changing the shape of the access hole to the can might get people to stop and think - especially if the hole is inconveniently small for regular refuse, but works for bottles.

Another method might be to assign the people who use the break room the task of "sorting" the recyclables. If they are the ones who have to dig through the garbage to get the good stuff out, they will think twice before throwing their leftover food in there.

Colocating the 2 containers is not a good idea. Put some distance between them.

  • 1
    I LOVE the changing the shape to the hole idea. But, my guesstimate is that this is a "normal" office and they may not be able to customize much. (It's pretty hard to cut out plastic I think, isn't it?) I agree and disagree about the spacing. I didn't notice we even had recycling containers for 8 months until someone literally pointed it out, because the trash can and recycling bins were separated in the room.
    – AzKai
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 23:25


Hmmm interesting UX question. I usually assume UX will be about websites... but this is completely valid, too!

Color Code It

You guys had it right when you were color coding things. My suggestion would be to make the trash can red. Of course, red means "stop" or "danger" to us so you'll [hopefully] find that people will hesitate before using the red bin.

Don't Make Them Think

This small hesitation is your one chance to get them to READ. Otherwise, people will never read any sign you put up. (We hate reading, really--I'm surprised people read my long-winded answers!)

Symbols are your Friends

Remember, no one reads... but their subconscious will translate the symbol into meaning. On the red trash can, place a white piece of paper (printer paper, I'm assuming since you probably have that there handy) with a green or black arrow pointing towards the recycling bin.

Let's Recycle!

Wait... what are you recycling? Well, try out FontAwesome (or icons on the interwebs) to make a picture of various things you want them to recycle in the specified bin. Plastic? Find a plastic bottle icon. Aluminum? Find an icon of a can.

Important: Place small text below the images to explain what the image means if the person can't figure it out, but the image should be the main attraction.

You can print this out and put this on the recycling bin... which by the way, should be green!

Whoa, red and green, hold on!

Up to 10% of the population is color blind, and some people have a hard time differentiating between red and green. That makes this whole color coding thing harder for them and you'll see less success with them until they have read and memorized the symbols / locations of the bins.

Chicken or the Egg?

Experiment with putting the regular, red trash bin on the right and the recycling on the left, and vice versa. There are a lot more right-handed users than left-handed, so I imagine more people would go to use the right bin first--so, that could be your red trash can. (Because the red trash can is what makes them stop and think.) This may not work as well though, so switch it up and see if the other way works better.


Because the current "labels" of which trash can is which is on the door of the cabinet, people are not able to see the label when they are using the trash bins. This causes them to use either or and is another reason you are experiencing this issue. They need to be able to see the label clearly when they are making the decision on which bin to use.

Phew, that was fun! Hope that helps. :)

  • Color coding is the solution. But a very long answer :) Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 4:58
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    But I don't agree to the coding proposed :-( "Red" is for warning, to make people hesitate and think before dumping. This should happen when they want to put something into the recycle bins, since trash in the recycle bins is more serious (I assume) than recycleables (?) in the trash bin. This makes me think color coding will not be the solution - as the OP already mentioned. Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 6:57
  • Red is also the colour of fire. i.e. burnable. Many places don't divide rubbish into recyclable and unrecyclable but rather burnable and unburnable (same meaning though) so it works on that level too. Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 7:57
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    Often times int he US red is used to signify dangerous or harmful items, such as bins for syringes in doctor's offices, etc.
    – yuritsuki
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 19:47
  • Siva-Dev-Wizard Yes I think it is part of the answer. :) virtualnobi For me personally, I always go to the trash can to throw anything away. I'm lazy, like most of America. So that was my opinion there, but ofc I don't have handily ready statistics to back that one up. theotherone I've never seen burnable and unburnable... how would people know what to put where? Haha. Can't you burn anything? >_> rejectedregedit Don't disagree there, but, the user didn't specify they were in a doctor's office. I think they would be more coordinated already if they were :P Ofc that is an assumption again
    – AzKai
    Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 14:41

The ideal UX solution is that you handle the recycling separation on the back end.

For your particular problem:

They are simply two bins, with the same color

...start my differentiating them by color...

that are hidden in a cabinet.

...and consider not hiding them in a cabinet.

Outside of the cabinet are two doors, one door saying "recycling" and the other saying "trash"

Consider more than simple text to distinguish the two options. At this point, I believe this is more of a signage/wayfinding question and likely belongs on GraphicDesign.SE instead.

Beyond that there are solutions outside of UX. HR Policies, marketing (contests), education (training), etc.

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    +1 for saying "Fire Them!" without actually saying it . LOL Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 21:41

Make milestones. Once a certain amount of recycling is done, everyone at the office gets a beer. Anything on those lines should or might help a bit.


I would try taking off the door from the trash cabinet but not the recycle bin cabinet door, making it less steps it will take them to throw the trash.

You could also just change the position of your trash and recycle bins. Seems like you have more traffic direction on the recycle bin side.


Do people understand what is considered trash and then what gets recycled? I swear every place is different in what it recycles (glass? plastic? paper? compost? glass without labels? etc.)

I would first make sure there were instructions on what needed to be recycled - then I would mark the recycled can in green or blue.


I think this is a fundamental problem with Recycle Bins, as long as you put them near to Trash Bins, people are going to throw trash inside them. That's because recycle bins are always associated with trash bins, we haven't been able to successfully separate the two in people's minds so far.

I think the only solution would be to put the Recycle Bin in a separate room at the separate end of the office. If possible, instead of Recycle Bin, perhaps you can change the setting of the room as well. For example, you could setup a Recycle Counter, where people would leave their stuff on the counter and someone could then put them accordingly in different boxes (bins), as paper, plastic and glass.

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    If you separate the bins into different places, your users have to make a decision very early where to go. They also have additional mileage if they have trash and a bottle. That'll lead to mixed content in both bins. Usability is about making it easier, without forces. Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 7:04
  • That's precisely the point. They need to be at two different places. But it doesn't have to be at the inconvenient place to people. People who care about recycling wouldn't mind to go to the specific place to throw their recyclables I believe.
    – Ades
    Commented Apr 13, 2015 at 4:12

At work we have two identical white bins right next to one another. The only difference is one uses a black colored bin bag and the other a clear bag.

Clear bag is associated with recycling by convention, so we've never had any issues of anyone making a mistake. We also have recycling symbols dotted around to make people aware that we do indeed recycle. Works like a charm.

In general I am not a fan of using text to indicate recycling since people are lazy by nature and don't care to read the signs. They are better used indicating what is recyclable.

I agree that using different shaped bin top/insert is also a good approach. It is built on the same principle.

Basically, make sure that the person stops and thinks about why those bins are different. Once they have figured it out, every day is just building up reenforcement.


We used to have the same problem in my office. (Although we have 2 separate recycling bins and 1 garbage bin) There was only 2 post-it notes above the bins but no one bothered to pay attention. Now we added a much better sign and I think it helps because it tells everyone exactly what goes in each bin. For example, it say "No soiled paper" in the paper recycling. I didn't even know that was a rule. I think a lot of people don't bother because they don't know if something should be recycled or not. If you make a sign that shows a few specific examples of what to recycle and what NOT to recycle I think it may help.

Here's an image of our sign at work: enter image description here


Identify and care are separate.

The standard symbol for recycle is enter image description here

And the standard color is green.

As for care need to educate people on the value of recycle. Meeting, flyer, one on one? If you can just get a few advocates that will speak out when someone uses recycle for trash hopefully a recycle culture will build. Especially if you can get some managers on board as advocates / enforcers.


This is all about human psychology. "if people like something they also like to see its growth"-like a plant . so we need to add some gamification to the recycle bin and then your staff actually start liking it(ya start like your recycle bin ) . my solution is just train your staff minds with some new things every day . they have to eagerly wait to see and use the recycle bin everyday . this is possible with some motivating images attached with the recycle bin . and most important thing is you need to change the image each and every day . theses are some sample i thought would have been better.

For example, from day 1 to day 6:

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here . .

source :-https://www.pinterest.com/wcmemphis/recycling-quotes/

after this your staff getting interested to it and might talk about today spacial recycle picture at the canteen .

by this your recycle bin get more and more importance . afterwords you can allow your staff to come up with new ideas . optionally you can give prize for the best innovation.

BTW: somehow they need to throw their trash out . so we don't need more attention to the trash-can . but recycle bin automatically get attention and care. ;-)

  • My local Whole Foods grocery store has labeled the cans something like "LANDFILL" and "RECYCLING," labels that are different enough that they get my attention and make it more clear what the effects of my actions are. Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 17:10

I think a good way to engage and motivate people is to give them some kind of incentive to recycle.

Maybe add a sign that says "it's been X days since we successfully recycled" and whenever trash ends up in the recycling the number goes back down to 0.

Or maybe see if it's possible to add an official office rule that recycling is mandatory. Here in NYC recycling is mandatory city-wide so everyone recycles. Maybe if the office sent a memo stating it as an official rule that would help.


I have seen a few examples of behavioural modification that make use of the 'norm' - for example: you could try putting up a poster that says something like "98.5% of people sort their trash correctly"

Alternatively, you could (and I hate this word) 'Gameify' it by posting some stats for correct recycling bin contents like: "last week we sent 2 bags of correctly sorted trash to recycling" - you could also show a progress chart.


Get rid of the recycling bin or just turn convert it into another trash can, from your post pretty likely people are only putting trash into the recycling to be annoying jerks. Not much of a fix for that aside from just physically preventing it.

  • That's not really an answer the question. :-)
    – Mayo
    Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 21:21

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