Trash Fantastic: Communication Design and Sustainable Waste Management

3 compartment recyclables bin in the kitchen, hostel, Cape Town

The interaction between someone disposing of waste and the waste disposal option of their choice is not often a lengthy one. Most people simply toss what they’re throwing out and move on. But this does not mean trash can design is unimportant – far from it. In my post last week I explored how to design the best trash can by learning from five cities across the globe. But it’s about more than product design – communications design comes into it too.

It is imperative for the design of waste options to be clear about what can be disposed of where to increase the chances of correct disposal. This can be achieved through the use of written labels, graphics – both mascots and drawings – and a replication of design elements.

Labels

Labels can be used to indicate the type of waste to disposed of, the intended location of said waste, and the action a waste disposer is expected to perform.

'Give me rubbish, thank you' Dual compartment bin, Kim Ma Street, Hanoi

‘Give me rubbish, thank you’ Dual compartment bin, Kim Ma Street, Hanoi

'Public trash bin' Dual compartment bin providing biodegradable and non-biodegradable options, Kim Ma Street, Hanoi

‘Public trash bin’ Dual compartment bin providing biodegradable and non-biodegradable options, Kim Ma Street, Hanoi

Along some roads in HàNội’s CBD, dual compartment metallic bins have ‘public waste bin’ in Vietnamese on one side and ‘give me rubbish-thank you’ in English on the opposite side. This is in addition to the labels on the bin flaps that alert one to what kinds of waste go where: biodegradable on one side, non-biodegradable on the other.

The same kind of specific-but-not-overly-so label, was also present on the University of Cape Town campus. Bins on the campus are labelled ‘recyclables’ and ‘non-recyclables’ or ‘non-recycling items only’.

Compartmentalised bins offering recycleables and non-recycleables options, UCT main campus, Cape Town

Compartmentalised bins offering recycleables and non-recycleables options, UCT main campus, Cape Town

On the other hand, these dual compartment bins in Parque do Ibirapuera have additional details besides the recyclables-organics labels that specify what kinds of things fall into each category- perhaps for users who might not have familiarity with the intended difference between organic materials and recyclable materials.

Two bin structure offering organics and recyclables disposal. Parque do Ibirapuera, São Paulo

Two bin structure offering organics and recyclables disposal. Parque do Ibirapuera, São Paulo

All these designs use labels to communicate to disposers of waste both what they can dispose of and where.

Graphics

Graphics such as mascots, drawings and sketches often go hand in hand with labels on bins. By leading by example, mascots breed association between a preferred action (defined by the disposal provider) and the overall disposal bin. In both Cape Town and Curitiba, mascots were used to communicate what disposers should do with their waste by providing example.

Zibi litter bin along a street, Cape Town

Zibi litter bin along a street, Cape Town

Zibi the ostrich taught proper disposal behaviour- disposal into the bin- and was represented on labels disposing of a piece of paper into a Zibi bin. The ‘FamiliaFolha’ (leaf family) in Curitiba also taught proper disposal- in this case, separation of recyclables from other waste.

On the bins around HoanKiem Lake, actual drawings of inorganic and organic wastes accompany overarching labels. Pictures of bananas, grass, a flower, tea leaves, fruits and a vegetable detail what falls under organics; while cigarette butts, glass, broken ceramics, plastic and fish bones feature under inorganics.

Dual compartment bins in park around Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi. Green, organics; Yellow, inorganics

Dual compartment bins in park around Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi. Green, organics; Yellow, inorganics

By providing images, confusion with regard to what exactly organic and inorganic waste is, is avoided.

The 5 bin disposal option at Ibirapuera Park also combined labels and graphics to communicate: there were sketches of glass bottles under glass, cans under metal and so on. Some sketches were not unique, however. Both plastics and glass had bottle sketches so both labels and graphics were needed for clear communication. The bins were so old though that many labels had worn off, perhaps contributing to the result that a number of plastic bottles ended up in the glass bin.

5 bin waste option in front of the Museu do Afrobrasil in Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo. Options: (l to r) Glass, Paper, Metal, Plastics and Organics

5 bin waste option in front of the Museu do Afrobrasil in Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo. Options: (l to r) Glass, Paper, Metal, Plastics and Organics

Replication of design elements in a public space or on the city wide scale is important for building association as well as avoiding confusion on the disposer’s part.

5 bin structure outside a corporate building, Berrini, São Paulo

5 bin structure outside a corporate building, Berrini, São Paulo

Coloured but otherwise unlabelled 5 bin structure, Barra Funda train station, São Paulo

Coloured but otherwise unlabelled 5 bin structure, Barra Funda train station, São Paulo

The use of similar colours to represent the same item wherever multi-compartment bins were present in São Paulo built association and provided for continuity. The blue, red, yellow, green and brown colour coding system was not only in use in Parque do Ibirapuera, but also showed up outside a corporate building in the financial district; in a shop along RuaConsolação; at the library; and in train stations. The presence of similar looking bins around HoanKiem Lake and in Cape Town’s CBD also provided for such continuity of action.

All the 3 aspects of clear communication – label, graphics and replication – depend on each other in order to be most effective. They all therefore need to be durable. The labels on the 5 bin disposal option at Parque do Ibirapuera had come off due to wear leaving only sketches to guide disposers. Plastic bottles ended up in the glass bin possibly in part because of the similarity in sketches for the two categories.

Association is also dependent on all three aspects. The new 5 compartment bins installed in train stations in São Paulo only have colours and nothing else to guide a disposer who might not have memorised or might not know what colour corresponds to what category.

Responsibility Shifting

If a simplified diagram is used to illustrate waste management actors throughout a product’s lifecycle it might look like this:

recycling route

Internalising the impacts of waste would imply moving responsibility for waste handling more and more to the left in such a schematic; towards producers of waste through goods production (manufacturing) and consumption. Through physical design, language, and placement, design can shift some responsibility for waste handling from municipal councils and nature to waste producers.

Physical design

Various waste options in the cities studied were compartmentalised, thus requiring the waste disposer to recognise that not all waste is similar and to physically separate their waste. Examples of this include the park around HoanKiem Lake, the bus park in Curitiba, the disposal options in Ibirapuera Park, and the options at the hostel in Cape Town.

Further, the size of waste options also provided a shifting of the burden of recycling onto the waste disposer with a visual reminder that most waste is recyclable, as the design in the Curitiba’s bus park did.

4 bin structure with the public waste bin (grey) against the wall, Municipal Market, Curitiba

4 bin structure with the public waste bin (grey) against the wall, Municipal Market, Curitiba

Finally, the placement of bins may act in such a way that it is easier to recycle than to do anything else with one’s waste. The four bin disposal options at the municipal market in Curitiba for example were arranged around a central pillar with the general waste i.e. non-recyclables bin against the wall and farthest away from a potential disposer.

Language

Language as used in labels also communicates desirable actions and may act subtly on people’s views of different actions while they do them. At the University of Cape Town, for example, non-recyclable waste bins are labelled as such. This wording brings the possibility of recycling closer to the disposer’s mind and forces an active choice between not recycling and recycling. The use of positive and negative terminology is also more forceful than the ‘neutral’ waste and recycling.

The Zibi bins in Cape Town have the slogan ‘Zappit in the Zibi bin’ and are labelled as litter bins. This not only sends the message that all waste is litter but also divorces the disposer from the end result of their waste by insinuating that after zapping one’s waste, the disposer has done as much as they needed to. This slogan keeps responsibility for waste management firmly in the hands of municipal councils and nature.

The waste bins around HoanKiem Lake shift responsibility furthest towards producers of waste. At the bottom of the organics label there is an additional directive: ‘Please remove water before disposal’. This requires the waste disposer to engage in their action of throwing out organic waste beyond the physical act of disposal. Under the inorganics label there is: ‘Please reduce/minimise before disposal’. In this, the design integrates the first R- reduce- and moves responsibility for waste onto the consumer who acquires items that will then be disposed of. The use of this directive also makes the design proactive with waste handling as opposed to reactive.

So how should a city’s waste management communications be designed? 

Labels such as those of UCT’s campus receptacles and HoanKiem Lake’s bins would communicate the importance of both recycling and reducing one’s waste. The placement of these ideal designed options would considerwhere disposer traffic was likely to be highest and what waste would be generated based on activities occurring. The ideal design would also be replicated through a given urban space in order to build coherence. Users would get used to seeing the same waste options and use them correctly, easier, and more often than they would where waste options differed across the city.

In this way design would play a role in helping to achieve the reduction of waste’s negative impacts and would become an enabling structure and effective mediator in the management of waste. Design might not be the most important actor in environmental issues such as waste and neither can it guarantee that desirable goals will be met, but what it can do is to actively promote these goals.

Wangũi Kamonji is an independent researcher and Wellesley College graduate of environmental studies and urban studies. She blogs about her encounters in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, Tanzania and Vietnam.