Let's put the idea of garbage in the trash

We know we can recycle. We just aren't doing it properly yet. Here are a few ideas that could help us change that.

Celebrate the recycling bin instead of putting it in a dark corner, columnists say

Columnist Wins Bridgman created this design as an architecture student in the 1980s. The cornucopia, filled with recycling, shouts out for attention. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

The City of Leonia refashions itself every day.… It is not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought that you can measure Leonia's opulence, but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new. (Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino)

We know garbage is produced at an alarming rate. We also understand there are at least two costs associated with this so-called garbage.

The first is the expense of taking it to the landfill and managing that landfill. Second is the value of the resources (metals, glass, compost, etc.) squandered by not reusing them.

Our apparent overall indifference to these expenses and lost revenues may lie somewhere between a sense of privilege (as in the obsession with "the new" in the Invisible Cities excerpt) and not having the right systems in place to help us recycle.

Wins' first response to reading Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities as a young architect in Toronto in the 1980s was to design large garbage containers shaped like cornucopia for public places. The idea was to have the garbage receptacle shout out, "Look at me! I am a symbol of abundance and nourishment, and I contain something no less than garbage."  

Not surprisingly, the parks and waste management departments were uninterested in this public art project at the time, and the cornucopia project languished.

Public recycling containers have become ubiquitous in our cities, and in 2015, Winnipeggers recycled more than ever as individuals. From 2006 to 2015, Winnipeg's residential waste has decreased by more than 23 per cent, while recycling has increased by over 31 per cent.

Even so, as of 2016, 13 per cent of Winnipeg's recycling was contaminated with non-recyclable garbage; by 2018, that had increased to 18 per cent.

Even a gob of peanut butter left in a jar or a dirty diaper can compromise the recycling of a tonne of paper. That which is contaminated cannot be recycled.

We know we can recycle. We just aren't doing it properly yet.

One successful approach is being pioneered in Carleton University's food court with impressive results.

Over the course of a 10-month period in 2017, the amount diverted from the waste stream went from 12 per cent to 90 per cent, according to the university's recent food court recycling audit.

The University of Carlton uses a food court diversion station to capture different types of recycling. The school's approach has drastically reduced the amount of waste sent to landfill. (University of Carlton)

This translates into approximately 37,500 kilograms of waste, preventing the generation of about 222,300 kilograms of methane gas each year. As well, this provides just under 60,000 kilograms of recycling that both avoids the landfill and the extraction of new resources from the earth, the university says.

How did the University of Carleton do it and what are the take-home lessons?

Put the idea of garbage in the garbage 

Maybe the idea that we can consider anything worthless or meaningless is, well … garbage.

The University of Carleton got rid of waste bins and provided four-step recycling receptacles. Bright and clear, they name and show where that thing-in-hand can go.

The university said the project paid for itself (through the decrease in costs of waste disposal) in less than a year. After that, the food court generated $5,042 a month in cost savings. No small peanuts.

By providing alternative language for the word garbage and using precise categories — such as compost, plastic, metal, paper and landfill — we value the components of garbage as resources. These resources represent a cornucopia of value in their past, present and future forms.

Celebrate the recycling bin

The Carleton diversion station shows us that recycling bins can be bright and attention-getting, rather than innocuous and in the corner, as so many garbage bins are.

Why not take this a step further? Think of our caretakers of garbage as Leonia's "angels" and redesign our garbage containers to represent our aspirations.  

Garbage is always "taken away" or made to disappear. But what if composting were part of the recycling diversion station? What if plants grew out of the composted soil?

Why not have plants sprout out of composted material in a public recycling station? (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

What if public recycling places, rather than being shunted off to the side of the room, took their rightful physical and cultural place at the intersection of usefulness and public sustainability awareness? 

Local stations could provide dashboard information on the amount of garbage or resources diverted successfully from landfill sites that week, that month, that year.  

If garbage really is a citywide issue and a way of spending or saving institutional and public monies, why shouldn't the design of our recycling bins celebrate ideas about collecting garbage as a cornucopia?

Public recycling stations shouldn't be shunted into out-of-the-way corners. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

The University of Carleton studied student behaviour and designed interventions to enhance waste diversion rates at their food court.

A key part of the university's plan included employing student recycling ambassadors to monitor the stations and build awareness about the proper use of the system. The bins are being regularly cleaned and emptied. 

The project relies on the institution and local government co-operating, and consumers contribute through their minute-by-minute acts of recycling.

The power of fun

If you want to change people's behaviour, making recycling fun is one way to do it. 

The Fun Theory, a Volkswagen initiative, generated lots of great ideas, including the Bottle Bank Arcade.

A collection bin was redesigned to resemble an arcade machine in Stockholm, Sweden. Sound effects and a flashing counter encouraged people to recycle more … and they did.

Rewards for recycling (for example, deposits on bottles) are another way to go.

Rethink garbage – 1, 2, 3

We are taught early on to attend to our toilet, to wash, clean our shoes and pick up after ourselves. In many elementary schools, the interest in recycling and composting are central to the curriculum.

Yes, let's all use less. But we can also reshape our actions by altering our very language and ways of thinking. 

1. Let's remove the word garbage from our vocabulary. 

2. Incentivize recycling behaviours through publicizing real-world cost savings. 

3. Reconfigure trash cans to become diverting stations — diverting in the sense of both "using for a different purpose" and "entertaining."

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Read more opinion pieces published by CBC Manitoba.


Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman (a professor in the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba) co-direct the Winnipeg design firm BridgmanCollaborative Architecture.


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