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Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown

Akendi Alumnus

Where Do I Put My Cereal Box? (The Usability of Recycling)

“Is this recyclable?” my boyfriend asks, holding up a black plastic food container. “No, it’s black plastic. You can’t recycle that.” I respond, glancing up from my book. He considers the container, “Why can’t you recycle black plastic?” he asks.

I’m not sure how I became the recycling expert in our house, but somehow, once you gain this prestigious position, I find that you are constantly asked for explanations of the ‘why’ of the whole system.

Here are a Few Confusing Recycling Facts for my City (Toronto, Canada)

  1. Want to recycle a bunch of plastic bags? Great! Go ahead and put them in the blue bin. Want to just recycle a single plastic bag? You can’t.
  2. That Tim Horton’s coffee cup looks pretty recyclable, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t.
  3. Surely, milk bags can be recycled; they’re made of a recyclable type of plastic. Nope, Toronto won’t accept those either.
  4. Okay, well this plastic has to be recyclable; it’s even got the recycling picture with a number on it. Unfortunately, that picture is completely unrelated to what you can actually recycle.
  5. And of course, the mysterious black plastic.

It doesn’t come as a great shock to me that residents of my city are apparently pretty bad at sorting recyclable material from non-recyclable material. In 2010, about 20% of the items people had put in recycling ended up being moved to the landfill.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two major contributors to the poor usability of this system. These are: complex rules based on unknown logic and the lack of standardization.

Unknown Recycling Logic

Currently, how I remember what can and cannot be recycled is through pure memorization. I wish there was a better system, because I forget and misplace things quite often. For the household expert, I’m really not much of an expert. Although, you’ll have to forgive me, Toronto really didn’t make it easy on me as a user. If you look at the five facts above, you’ll see that these rules are actually pretty complex, it comes down to remembering which items are recyclable and which aren’t based on rules that look like they were created with a mix of Mad Libs and a dart board.

Most people have the perception that there are about four categories of items they can recycle: paper, plastic, metal, and glass. It’s a simple model and pretty easy to use. Unfortunately, this model is wrong a lot of the time, so it’s a pretty bad model. Toronto needs a model that works better than this, but with its simplicity.

Now, I get it. Toronto has a problem, they can only recycle some things and unfortunately things that can be recycled look a lot like things that can’t be recycled. In an ideal world, I’d just toss everything in the same place and machines would sort it out, but we’re not quite there yet. That doesn’t mean that we can’t do better.

This, however, is only the first of our problems. Let us step out of Toronto to a nice little city to the east and talk about the second usability problem with recycling: standardization.

Standardization in Recycling

Welcome to Kingston, beautiful historic Canadian city and home to a number of cottages of people who normally reside in Toronto. Kingston, like Toronto, also has a recycling system with a number of strangely complex rules. However, similarities stop there.

In Toronto, you load all your recycling into one bin that is coloured blue and even if your box contains a few items that aren’t recyclable, they’ll pick it up anyway. In Kingston, there are suddenly two bins, one grey (where only some of your recycling belongs) and the other blue (where the rest of your recycling goes) and if anything is placed in the wrong bin then they won’t take the bin.

So far, this just seems like one extra thing to remember: grey or blue?

This, however, isn’t the only difference. In Kingston, milk bags are recyclable, in Toronto, they are not. In Kingston all blister packaging is recyclable, in Toronto, everything but gum blister packaging is recyclable. And so it continues, even if you managed to memorize the entire list of recyclable items it would only ever help you in a single city.

The Only Constant: Change

What is recyclable and what is not recyclable is constantly changing. When I lived in Kingston a little over two years ago, Tropicana plastic orange juice containers were not recyclable and now they are. In Toronto, milk bags, which are currently not recyclable, are scheduled to be recyclable starting June 1st.

So, in summary, figuring out what to recycle is a series of complex rules that are constantly changing and are only applicable to your particular city. Fellow Torontonians, I would like to congratulate you on only being wrong 20% of the time.

I guess there is only one question that remains now. What’s up with the black plastic? Turns out that optical sensors use reflected light to determine the different types of plastic and the black plastic doesn’t reflect light, so can’t be sorted.

I guess even machines have a hard time figuring this stuff out.

Michelle Brown

Michelle Brown

Akendi Alumnus


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Akendi is a human experience design firm, leveraging equal parts experience research and creative design excellence. We provide strategic insights and analysis about customer and user behaviour and combine this knowledge with inspired design. The results enable organizations to improve effectiveness, engage users and provide remarkable customer experiences to their audiences.