Do Labels Help People Recycle?

If a trash can says 'landfill,' would it make you think twice before using it?

trash and recycling bins at Georgia Tech
Bins on the campus of Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Mary Jo DiLonardo

On the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology in midtown Atlanta, the trash cans point out clearly where your garbage is destined. They say “landfill” and have a small symbol of a garbage can. The cans are a dull shade of gray-black and the lettering is simple and white.

The containers are located right next to bright blue plastic recycling bins. These containers are much more eye-catching. They have the recognizable recycling symbol with the chasing arrows and pictures of several types of recyclable bottles, just for inspiration.

The hope is that people will think about where their trash is going before tossing something away.

The bins have been labeled that way on the Georgia Tech campus since 2006, Emma Brodzik, the campus recycling coordinator, tells Treehugger.

“The decision was on purpose so that the user would be reminded where the material will go,” she says. “ The labeling is also to signal where items should be placed, to make sure recyclable or non-recyclable items are put into the correct slot of the container. Many other cities and universities are using this messaging to get people thinking about their waste.”

Brodzik says she believes that the labeling has made some students and other people on campus hesitate and think about where their garbage may be heading. 

“I think having the slots for trash labeled as landfill, makes it clear,” she says.

It's Important to Make it Easy

Convenience and location are key to ensure that the right things get placed in recycling and trash.

A whopping 66% of Americans surveyed in a Harris poll in 2018 said they probably wouldn’t recycle at all if it wasn’t easy to do.

No matter how you label them, having trash cans next to recycling bins is a “critical best practice to ensure the recycling bin will not be plagued with contamination,” Aimee Lee, national account director for Recycle Across America, a recycling nonprofit working to advance a standardized labeling system for recycling, compost, and trash bins, tells Treehugger.

“If a person is intending to recycle a plastic bottle but only sees a trash can, inevitably the recyclable bottle will end up in the trash," she says. "Likewise, and actually even more concerning, if someone has a piece of trash to throw away but they only see a recycling bin, that trash will likely be discarded into the recycling."

“For this reason, it is important to always place a trash receptacle next to the recycling, and we do feel it is just as important to properly label bins for trash as it is to label your recycling and compost bins," she adds.

The Downsides to ‘Landfill’

There are benefits and challenges to choosing the language “landfill” versus “trash,” Lee says.

“The term ‘landfill’ may cause people to pause and think about where the things they are discarding will eventually end up, which may motivate people to be more aware of whether the item might actually be recyclable,” she says.

“The challenge to that is, it might also cause some people to ‘wishcycle’ an item if they are unsure of its recyclability, out of guilt that it will wind up in the landfill," says Lee.

What is Wishcycling?

Wishcycling is the desire to believe certain items are recyclable, even when they're not.

She also points out that the term “trash” is more commonly recognized, and may be easier to translate for those whose primary language isn’t English.

But the key is to get people to sort their items and to put them in the right place.

“Until we eliminate the public’s confusion at the bin, the economics and viability of recycling will continue to be impacted,” she says. “That’s why it’s critical that we make it easy for the public to recycle properly wherever they are.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Executive Summary Report." The Harris Poll, 2018.