Redesign recycling: A design thinking odyssey

Phil Smith
Apr 22 · 7 min read
Photo credit: IDEO on the Design Kit Travel Pack.

The first stage of the odyssey: build empathy

To actually make recycling better (instead of worse!) we need to learn from others. We need to get outside of our own experiences and context. This is the foundation of innovation. To do this the team took a field trip.

I Notice, I Wonder

With pen and paper in hand, we left the office to look for recycling and trash bins in the wild. Carefully observing, we noted what we noticed and what that in turn made us wonder. The team noticed that—even in the green city of Vancouver —the city with goal to have zero waste — recycling is exceptionally confusing. Walk just a block and you may see four competing versions of recycling bins: different designs, different icons, different colours, different rules. Ain’t nobody got time for ’dat! We noticed people putting the same items into the wrong bin. We wondered what happens when something is put in the wrong bin. Recycling in public is a black box with no feedback loop. How can you learn if you never know what you’re doing wrong? Learning from others filled us with empathy and ideas.

Capture the Right Mood

We headed back to the office to build empathy from another angle. Empathy is like examining a diamond. Look at the problem from a different angle and you will see something new. There are practically unlimited ways of looking at this diamond. Rotate it and something new will glimmer. We looked at our problem from a new angle by using mood boards. The design thinking twist is that we don’t make the collages ourselves, we observe others make them. Their prompt was ‘How could recycling be effortless.’ All of the participants were reluctant in varying degrees. How could this be useful? Why would you sacrifice your Nat Geos? The ambiguity was unbearable for one person who walked away without starting. I am sure that if they started cutting and taping, they would have contributed valuable ideas. Alas, the first cut was too much. Others did finish their mood boards though, giving us valuable ideas. Why isn’t this automated? Why can’t we blast our trash into space? What about incinerators — let’s burn it! Not all feel that recycling is important, but all feel that it is hard.

The second stage of the odyssey: experiment rapidly

An eternity could be spent doing research, but forward motion is critical. With a healthy dose of empathy we moved forward.

Guerrilla Design

We noticed many single use coffee cups thrown in the garbage instead of recycling. So to experiment rapidly, we designed a better sign for the confused patrons of the mall. We covered up the confusing signage with a new sign communicating a singular message: coffee cups go here! We sat at different bins and watched. Much to our relief, security guards did not escort us off of the property. In our moment of glory, we witnessed someone walk up with coffee cup in hand, reach for the waste, stop, and recycle it instead. Victory! This validated our idea: signs with a singular message will be ignored less.

The bad idea brainstorm.

Bad Idea Brainstorm

We headed back to the office to unleash our creativity. Personally, I hate brainstorms. I need the mental space to mull things over and let my mind wander. Brainstorms usually just get my mind stuck on others’ good ideas. For some reason though, my ideas flowed in the bad idea brainstorm. Bad ideas are funny. Bad ideas aren’t precious. In a bad idea brainstorm, everyone writes as many bad ideas to solve the problem as possible. Put all of them on a wall and categorize them. Then, discuss which ones can be flipped on their heads—good ideas in hiding. Our bad ideas included bees in waste bins to make people afraid; active fires at garbage bins; a space potato cannon but with trash. Such good bad ideas! Sure enough, some promising ideas were hiding. What about a universal language for recycling? Like Esperanto, but successful. Use the same visual language—colours, icons, etc.—everywhere in the world. (Turns out, Norway’s done this.) What about a rotating ad campaign, focusing on one commonly misplaced item at a time? The public’s collective knowledge of recycling would gradually increase, starting with the highest impact items. Our creativity was being unleashed.

Headlines from the future.

Headlines From the Future

To build on the good ideas we found amongst the bad ones, we again looked at the problem from a new angle. Imagine that your solution is wildly successful. What will the newspapers say 20 years from now? So, we wrote a headline and brief article from the future. Yet another new vantage point to see things from.

Expert Interview

To fill in some gaps in our understanding, we called a friend who both for the City of Vancouver and is a passionate expert in recycling. It was an enlightening discussion. We learned that Vancouver has some of the most uncontaminated recycling in North America. The call confirmed some of our ideas and provided new ones too.


As mentioned above, moving forward is critical. In order to experiment rapidly you have to take an idea and make it tangible. You see what works and what doesn’t. And this stage of the journey is where we failed (at least in terms of design thinking). Instead of making something we talked about our ideas. But better late than never! Long after the hackfest was over I designed a sign for each bin in our office, picking a single oft-misplaced item for each bin. These illustrations requires no mental effort. When people learn to recycle these items another commonly misplaced item can be illustrated. The system adapts its colours to its environment like a chameleon (or cuttlefish).


The design thinking odyssey was worth it. It was fun and fruitful. By learning from others, we unleashed our creativity and rapidly experimented. We discovered a small way to make recycling better.

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A window to the product, design, and engineering teams at Galvanize, an enterprise SaaS company

Phil Smith

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Build Galvanize

A window to the product, design, and engineering teams at Galvanize, an enterprise SaaS company