Learning from Cities Across the Globe to Create the Best Trash Can

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

No one wakes up saying, ‘I want to make some waste! Eutrophy some lakes! Deforest the Amazon!’ It’s about understanding why waste is created, and what structures are in place to encourage it, or what’s not in place to create a situation where we can reduce our waste. – D.Hazzard, Wellesley College ‘12

Urban areas concentrate not only economic and social production, but also waste production. Waste that is often addressed at the end of a long chain of actors- manufacturers, retailers, consumers, disposers, municipal councils, collectors, recyclers. And thus waste’s final destination and the impacts of the same are made invisible. The problem of what to do with waste is externalised by actors along the chain of waste production, an externalisation aided by structures that promote it; or that are not present to encourage better waste handling.

Inspired by a semester-long research project on the sources, amounts, destinations and impacts of Wellesley College’s waste, and with memories still fresh of my confusion from all the different categorisations of waste  in the US while studying there, I decided to investigate what role design has in influencing the outcomes of waste handling in public urban spaces. I wanted to know what the qualities of a good trash can design might be, and what cities needed to be doing to get their waste options in line with their waste goals.

I observed various waste management options (reduce, reuse, recycling, garbage, compost) and their uses (or not) in public spaces in New Orleans, USA; São Paulo and Curitiba, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa and Hà Nội, Vietnam- cities I was in as part of an educational programme. This often meant staring into trash and recycle bins, and standing with a notebook and pen in hand close to others for an hour at a time watching what people did with their waste. I also spoke with city residents and people working in waste management to find out more about the choices individuals and cities made. The insights I gained from both of these inform an analysis of how design can be used to achieve desirable waste management goals including a reduction of waste ending up in landfills; a reduction of emissions such as methane and dioxins; resource recovery and job creation; and internalisation of the impacts of current waste management practices.

I considered elements such as physical shape and size, number, placement, graphics and language employed on observed waste options. I concluded that design, besides being present, needs to be responsive to context and needs, clearly communicate, and effectively share responsibility for waste handling in order to help attain the goals of waste reduction in urban areas. But what exactly does this look like in reality and is there an ideal design for waste management?

Physical Design

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

Such dual bin structures for organic and inorganic waste, coloured green and orange respectively, were in the park surrounding HoanKiem Lake in HàNội’s French Quarter. The two bins are of the same size. In a public park such as this where people participate in a variety of activities such as walking, jogging, having meals and picture taking, there is potential for a variety of wastes to be generated. The provision of two catch-all options, broadly defined, indicates that this variety of activities, and therefore of waste was taken into consideration.

Different sized bins with 'familia folha' (leaf family) mascot, bus park, Curitiba

Different sized bins with ‘familia folha’ (leaf family) mascot, bus park, Curitiba

At a bus park in Curitiba, where people would be boarding and alighting from journeys, and seats were also provided for the general public, the same consideration for a variety of wastes generated was present. In addition to anticipating a variety of waste, the design also anticipated that recyclable waste would make up the larger proportion of this. Hence the non-recyclables bin was about half the size of the recyclables bin. In both cases, physical design was responding to probable needs by using size and shape elements.

Adequate presence (number)

Litter bins in each of the cities were often numerous and replicated. For example, black fleur-de-lis’d litter bins lined the streets all over the French Quarter in New Orleans; as did ‘Zibi’ the Ostrich litter bins in Cape Town’s CBD.

Black fleur-de-lis'd litter bins, French Quarter, New Orleans

Black fleur-de-lis’d litter bins, French Quarter, New Orleans

Zibi litter bin along a street, Cape Town

Zibi litter bin along a street, Cape Town

Park areas in cities also had many bins present. In the small park Praça do Japão in Curitiba, there were eight wooden slatted litter bins dotting the landscape. In these spaces, there wasn’t a lack of disposal options and all waste discarded could potentially be captured.

Wood slatted litter bin, Praça do Japão, Curitiba

Wood slatted litter bin, Praça do Japão, Curitiba

Providing the same waste options throughout a large area, such as the ‘Zibi’ bins in Cape Town’s CBD contributed to coherence in waste management. Users would get used to seeing the same waste options and use them correctly easier than they would where waste options differed across the city therefore requiring corresponding and frequent behaviour modification.


In a hostel in Cape Town that I stayed at for a few days, there was evident anticipation of where the largest volumes of different types of waste would be produced. The main non-recyclables bin was in the kitchen, as was the recyclables bin providing for tin cans, plastics and glass disposal. The greatest volume of these waste items would likely be the result of various kitchen activities. Paper recycling bins on the other hand were placed along corridors and close to common rooms where activities that would generate paper waste, such as newspaper reading, printing, etc. were likely to occur.

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

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

3 recycling bins at main disposal area, Tedx Cape Town, Free World Design Centre, Cape Town

3 recycling bins at main disposal area, Tedx Cape Town, Free World Design Centre, Cape Town

The placement of disposal options at the Tedx Cape Town 2012 event held at the Free World Design Centre also responded to need. Whereas the main disposal area was to one side of the space and glass, paper and plastics recycling was available, the tin cans recycling bin was on the opposite side and next to the cooler full of canned drinks. So as event-goers picked up their canned drink they were reminded of where to place the can once they were done.


The food court in Century City Mall, Cape Town was an example of responsiveness in both presence and placement. In this space where food waste was likely to be generated in large volumes, six dual compartment bins providing options for food waste (only) and for recyclables were placed around the eating area.

Dual compartment bin in food court, Century City Mall, Cape Town

Dual compartment bin in food court, Century City Mall, Cape Town

Issues with Responsiveness

It is possible for the same design to be responsive in one aspect and not responsive in another. 

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

This 5 bin disposal option in front of the Museu do Afrobrasil in Parque do Ibirapuera, São Paulo receives a lot of traffic from people entering and leaving the park because it is on the path leading to the gate. It is therefore well placed to capture the waste generated by the large number of passers-by (need). Its compartmentalisation into separate waste categories, the small size of bins, and the fact that it’s the only one along that path however, constrain where people can dispose of waste. On an afternoon observation, the plastics bin was overflowing while other bins were barely half full.This design was therefore not responsive in shape, size or number, even though it was responsive in placement.

So what should a city’s waste management options look like? It would combine the adequate presence of NOLA’s French Quarter fleur-de-lis’d bins and Cape Town’s Zibi bins with the adequate sizing of the HoanKiem Lake bins. Even better is to use the differentiated sizing of Curitiba’s FamiliaFolha receptacles accompanied by an educational campaign to reinforce the benefits of and how to separate waste.

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 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

'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

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

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


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 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

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

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

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

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 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.

Featured and final image courtesy of A. Bentz. All other images courtesy of Wangũi Kamonji.