Our facility is very large and we have recycle bins in all break rooms and eating areas. There are separate bins for plastic, aluminum, and trash. Current waste analysis shows that approximately 57% of items are placed in the proper bins. Our goal is 70%. What sort of incentive or program would have a long-lasting and permanent effect? I believe that this would require a change in the company culture itself. My current thought is to ask management for 2 hours off the day before Christmas holidays if the recycling goals are met. I am uncertain if they would accommodate this and I am fishing for more ideas.

  • 3
    I highly suggest you dont do the extra break reward the way you are planning to. Otherwise some people will 100% do everything right, and the handful who dont and keep you at 57% will ruin it for everyone. Punishing those who do it right wont help – Rhys Jul 23 '13 at 14:28
  • 3
    What about people who think recycling is wrong? – jmorc Jul 23 '13 at 15:08
  • 5
    @notmyrealname beat them with recyclables until they concede. – Michael Grubey Jul 23 '13 at 15:16
  • 2
    @MeredithPoor: Not all municipalities can do that in their facilities. Also, if the recyclables go into the waste bin, it doesn't matter how sophisticated the sorting plant is, since they won't get anything to sort. – FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jul 23 '13 at 15:51
  • 4
    @JimG. I don't know about carbon emissions, but in terms of cost/benefit, recycling aluminum is usually the only thing worthwhile - paper and other materials (often? sometimes?) cost more to recycle than to make anew. – Izkata Jul 24 '13 at 14:28

10 Answers 10


When we started recycling more aggressively at my workplace a few years ago, we found that (a) most people want to do the right thing and (b) people don't want to have to work at it. The recycling bins in the kitchen and by exits are a fine start, but what made the difference for us was giving everybody a recycling bin alongside his personal trash bin. (We don't have to separate materials, though, and it sounds like you do.)

To figure out where to place which recycling bins, start by looking at what is getting tossed into the trash where. Are people mostly tossing paper at their desks and next to the printer? Put paper bins there. Are people tossing drink cans in meeting rooms? Put aluminum bins there. Analyze your current user behaviors and go from there.

For any new program that asks people to change their behavior, you'll likely get better results if you react to the current behavior. Tweaking which bin an employee tosses something in is easier than getting that person to walk to a different part of the office to drop it into a bin there.

As for shared rewards, the challenge there is always the tragedy of the commons and the resentment it can produce when some people are dilligent, some are slackers, and everybody gets the same outcome.

  • 2
    What's interesting is that approaching the user interface design of software is much the same: "Analyze your current user behaviors and go from there.". – jmort253 Jul 27 '13 at 18:52

Make recycling:

  1. Easy. I am indifferent about recycling. But if you make it easy for me, I will recycle. If you make it hard or difficult to know how to recycle, I (and most people) won't. Making me walk across the room? Bad. Putting something at my desk? Good.
  2. Obvious. This is close to the above, but so often I see all these cryptic things which seem like they should be some sort of recycling but I can't figure it out. People design systems/receptacles/signs which "make perfect sense!" but are indecipherable to the majority. Then a few people make mistakes and it's game over as containers get filled with the wrong things.
  3. Standard. Don't mix/match colors, container sizes, etc. Make all containers for recycling the same. It drives me NUTS when I have a trash can with a little recycle container and they are both blue. Which should I use? Blue normally means recycle, which is which? Make sure you at the very least have a standard system across your entire company, and combine with #2.
  4. Combined. Try to combine things which make sense. This is also related to the first point, but if I have a lunch and have to split it into 5 bins, not going to happen. But if there is a "recycle" vs a "trash" bin, easier. Maybe this means you have a recyclable bin containing plastic/aluminum containers and everything else is trash. I don't know, but no one wants to play sorting games when they really just want to throw things away.

Does the company realize any savings from recycling? Lower costs, or a rebate from the city?

If there is a savings from better recycling then add it to an employee fund that pays for snacks, or a pizza party.

One way to change the behavior is to make it harder to do the wrong thing. Office trashcans should be very small, give them a paper bag to put paper in. Put the recycling containers where the "trash" is made, and in the offices.

The biggest problem where I have worked is that a small percentage of people are stubborn; they go out of their way to put trash into the recycling container. To minimize the impact the recycling had to be collected everyday.


Have competitions. Put departments up against each other. Maybe the monthly winner will get lunch brought in for them. Keep a point standing or keep the standings by pound and display it for everyone to see. The incentive can be whatever you think will get them to do it. Some good ones would be money, food, or time off.

  • My firm takes the floor which won this competition to a good football match. – happybuddha Jul 24 '13 at 3:00
  • 1
    I see this causing trouble, only rewarding the best people sends the message to the rest 'it doesnt matter what you do' – Rhys Jul 24 '13 at 8:32

Executive Summary

Incentives are nasty little things that have a habit of mucking things up in the long run. As Dan Ariely pointed out in Predictably Irrational, "money, as it turns out, is the most expensive way to motivate people. Social norms are not only cheaper, but often more effective as well."

If you base the program on rewards, people will be upset if the rewards are removed. Currently 57% of the people in the office are doing the right thing for free. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The question is, "What is the difference between the 57% who are doing it, and the 43% who aren't?"

Listen to your Users

As Monica points out:

For any new program that asks people to change their behavior, you'll likely get better results if you react to the current behavior. Tweaking which bin an employee tosses something in is easier than getting that person to walk to a different part of the office to drop it into a bin there.

Figure out what the difference is between the 43% and the 57%. Or even if it's that some people recycle sometimes, and don't others. Figure out what the barriers are from the user side. Rather than paying someone a dime for jumping through the hoop, eliminating the hoop means you can keep your dime.

Strengthen Existing Social Norms

If you are going to use incentives, use them to reward the good eggs. If a certain team or department has been really good about recycling, then get them a cake or a pizza or something at random, with a nice note on top saying, "Thanks for recycling! Your friends in facilities"

Have your staff carry around pens engraved with, "Thanks for recycling, keep up the good work! Your friends in facilities" and when they see someone sorting their recycling, have them hand them out (sparingly and randomly, not on any set basis).

The point is that you are saying to people, "Recycling is the proper thing to do, and we appreciate it" rather than giving incentives that say, "C'mon guys, PLEASE recycle -- we'll give you candy!" Care should be taken to make sure that the former doesn't turn in to the latter. That's why any rewards should be sparing, random, but visible -- lets people know that it's important, but not something they should expect a reward for.

Make the Problem More Obvious

Right now there likely isn't much in the way of obvious consequences for not sorting the recycling. It doesn't get done properly in the office, so the facilities management folks have to do extra work to sort it out afterward. This is all behind the scenes, so an individual employee doesn't feel that his/her actions are having a negative effect.

Instead, trying showing that there is an issue. Create a bin next to the recycles and waste that says, "Unsorted Rubbish" or whatever you'd like to call it. You can put a nice explanation below saying something like:

If people put their waste in the recycling bin, or vice versa, it causes lots of extra work for the facilities people. If you can't be bothered to sort yourself, please dump it here to make the job of sorting your refuse easier.

The point is to call attention that the rubbish does get sorted, and that the actions of individuals does impact someone. While it's harder to make a comment to someone if they are dumping unsorted rubbish in to the recycling or waste portions, it is quite a different thing when you are intentionally dumping in the "this causes extra work for someone" bin, and makes it easier for the 57% to enforce a norm held by over half the office.

In addition to creating the extra bin, if the stats don't improve, you can do the sorting of the unsorted bin during work hours, once a week, to show people that real people are really doing this work (and that dumping in the "unsorted" bin has consequences).


In my experience, I've had a lot of well-meaning coworkers who want to recycle, but don't understand what should go where, so they throw out things that could have been recycled. Recycling guidelines might even be different between the city where your employees live and where they work (this is definitely true for San Francisco, which has unique recycling/composting guidelines).

Make sure all containers have very clear signs that detail how to recycle different items. Make sure to include pictures of commonly found items in the office (for example, the milk cartons in your fridge, plastic forks, paper plates, etc.).

You might even want to have a lunch session or email chain where people can ask questions about tricky-to-recycle items.


1 - Make it easy

Get bins in more places

Get signage that is as clear as possible - pictures of what goes where

Change where possible to not needing to sort - even if it's at the desks that you can just toss recycling vs. trash, and the shared areas have the different types of bins - make it easy and less thought-inducing.

Also - conference rooms.

2 - Share Progress

If you're 57% of the way, share that! Near all trash bins, have a sign saying "help us get from 57% to 70% - put your recycling here - with a path to the nearest recyling bin

3 - Watch for Trouble

Where does the bad mix come in? That's where you need to make it easier.

Be aware it might not be only putting a bin in the right place, but keeping the bin empty. Or making the bin intake be capable of handling everything the bin should contain - for example, many paper recycling bins are limited to small piles of paper. What if I'm cleaning out a binder? I may give up and just dump it in the trash if it'll take serious work to put it paper by paper into the bin.

4 - Look for intake that can be simplified

For example, what does your cafeteria or local snack area provide for displosable utentils? Are they recyclable? Is it clear? What about other snack containers?

Some of the best recycling setups are the ones with labeled pictures showing EXACTLY what I'm likely to be carrying. I can't tell you if I'm carrying number 9 plastic, but I can tell you I'm carrying a red solo cup.

To say nothing of the idea that low-trash food systems result in less trash. Stuff like individual utensil distribution vs. packaged setups of knife/fork/spoon can simply save on how much stuff you have to toss.


Offer a reward to the office group that creates the least amount of trash and the most recyclables. Making office recycling like a game, at least to begin with, may get those who might not have otherwise been interested involved. Everyone likes a challenge and offering an incentive just ups the ante. Gift cards, movie tickets, or even just a candy bar make great rewards. The incentive doesn't have to be outrageous in order for employees to be interested.


I would look to see if the company is willing to make a charitable donation based on the recycling percentage. Make sure you give plenty of feedback on the progress along with information on the charity that will benefit. Employees could submit suggestions for a particular organization.

Some sort of celebration could also be in order. Maybe invite representatives of the chartitable organization to explain the work they do and cause they help.

I just don't think the company is going to offer so much of a reward that everyone is going to change their ways based on what will be a modest prize for themselves.


Make sure it's clear and consistent what goes in which bin. Where I work we have a ton of bins for various garbage and recycling and it's very unclear what is supposed to go in which. For example don't have a blue bin for garbage and make sure the signs are above the bins and are easily viewable.

You could try making the garbage bins harder to access or having fewer. Even something like putting lids on garbage bins that have to be open to use can persuade people to consider the recycling bins.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.