Case Study: Recycling Bin Signage

How do we change how people think about trash?

The Eco-Justice Team at Westminster Presbyterian Church led an effort to replace traditional trash and recycling bins with three-part bins that reduce the amount of refuse that ends up in landfills or goes to the incinerator. As co-chair of the Eco-Justice Team, Sandy worked with Dan Franklin, staff liaison, to design signage for the new bins and introduce the concept to the congregation. These bins coincided with the advent of Hennepin County’s 2015 composting program promoting waste reduction in the city of Minneapolis.

The Backstory

Several years ago, the Social Justice Team at Westminster Presbyterian Church developed a ‘Hope for the World’ statement that incorporated environmental sustainability as one of five key goals. Within this context, Westminster undertook several sustainability efforts, one of which is introducing composting and reducing its waste stream. The Eco-Justice Team worked with the staff to order commonly used compostable supplies (plates, utensils, cups, etc) so that fewer items would end up in the trash. They also replaced existing trash bins with combination bins—organics, recycling, and trash—and designed signage to accompany those bins.

The Challenge

Any signage at Westminster has to be tasteful and understated so that it can fits within diverse settings—classrooms, large forum spaces, and elegant rooms used for wedding receptions and funerals. The church is demographically diverse as well, and composting is a new concept for many in the congregation. So, the challenge we faced was to provide just enough information to make the bins functional, but not too much so that it becomes obtrusive.

The process

After the bins were installed we asked members of the congregation to monitor their use at various events. Feedback from those experiences and conversations with staff and facilities people at Westminster informed our design: Picturing all possibilities was too much, so we settled on listing items under categories for each bin. Here are two examples of the information hierarchy:

  • Recycling >  Plastics > any type of plastic food container
  • Organics > All food > fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, yogurt, fish, rice, beans, cheese, bones, pasta, eggshells

It made for a nice, clean design. Problem solved…or so we thought.

What we learned

Once the signage was in place, we quickly realized our mistake as we watched how people used the bins. People were confused. They stood in front of the bins determined to do the right thing, but gave up out of frustration and tossed everything in the waste bin. On closer observation, we realized that people conflated all things plastic: Plastic bottles, plastic wrap, and plastic food containers all ended up in the waste bin. People found the word ‘paper’ confusing: It was too much to figure out that food-soiled paper plates go in organics, while office paper goes in recycling.

Back to the drawing board and Design 101: a picture is worth a thousand words!


We are in the process of 1) documenting the items that cause the most confusion; 2) designing panels—one with graphics, one with photos—to accompany existing signage that we will test over the course of a month; and 3) crafting a larger campaign to engage the congregation: designating ‘recycling ambassadors’ during large events and asking junior high/high school students to create humorous 1-minute videos on composting/recycling.


Sandy Wolfe Wood, Designer and the Eco-Justice Team.