Recycling: The concept is pretty simple. Throw away stuff that can be melted down, chopped up, and made back into useful stuff. The problem is, I don’t understand how to do it.
For one, it’s difficult to find out what can and cannot be recycled. There are so many different kinds of paper goods, plastics, and metals, and worst of all, so many things that are combinations of materials or exotic new inventions of material science, that no list could possibly include every possible case. Secondly, the rules vary from location to location, and even at one location they can change from year to year. (“Check frequently with your recycler to see what their current requirements are,” reads one of the websites that tries to be helpful.)
This is a design failing of colossal magnitude. As director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego, a former executive at Apple and HP, and the author of several books on human-centered design, I’m an expert in complex design systems. Yet I’m mystified by what should be the most basic forms of recycling, like whether or not I can recycle a milk carton.
Milk cartons: to recycle or not to recycle?
I did some research on the topic, and the more I read, the more confused I got. Most authoritative articles say yes, you can recycle milk cartons (in theory). The Carton Council, an extremely reliable source, states that “Milk, soup, juice, wine, and broth are just some of the products packaged in cartons that you’ll find in your nearby grocery store—and they’re all recyclable!” Regular milk cartons are made from paperboard, polyethylene, or plastic, and shelf-stable cartons (aseptic) add a layer of aluminum. According to the Carton Council, we should recycle all of them with plastic, metal, and glass containers. But don’t crush the carton—that makes it harder for those sorting the trash to identify it.
I can remember that. Except that it isn’t always true. Because when I enter my zip code on the Carton Council’s website to see if my community recycles cartons, I see that my city is not listed, even though the two small cities just north of my home are listed. (I don’t live in a small community: I am in San Diego, the eighth largest city in the United States.)
So I try the website for the company that collects my trash. The company serves many locations across the United States, and each location has different rules. So once again, I enter my street address and zip code. Here, I’m given a list of acceptable items: Yes, I can recycle milk cartons. But, wait, elsewhere on the very same page of that website (just a small scroll away), there is a list of acceptable items, and milk cartons do not appear.
Milk cartons are just the tip of the iceberg. Paper is recyclable, so unused tissues, which are paper, should be recyclable, right? Well, some websites say “yes,” others say “no.” Plastics are another mystery. You’re supposed to look for the recycling symbol—that triangle with a number inside—but it can be difficult to find. Sometimes it is just a very tiny triangle made of slightly raised plastic on the bottom of the item and requires a flashlight or a magnifying glass (or both) to read. And even if you can find it, then what? The number featured inside the triangle is supposed to indicate what can be recycled—but again, this depends on where you live and what your recycling company is capable of doing. It also depends on the worldwide market for recycled goods. The National Geographic Society’s newsroom has an article “7 things you didn’t know about plastic (and recycling).” If you thought you were confused about recycling plastics, read the article: When you finish, I guarantee that you will be even more confused.
Consistency trumps everything
An important rule in the design of controls for technological devices is consistency. In the auto industry, international standards govern the placement of basic controls. Imagine how dangerous it would be if every car had basic controls, like the steering wheel or the brake, in a different location. The layout of the qwerty keyboard is standardized across most English-speaking nations. The French use azerty and the Germans use qwertz, but within any country, the keyboard in standardized. It isn’t that this is the best possible keyboard layout: It is that when everyone follows the same standards, everyone has an easier time. Those of us who must switch between keyboards for different countries can attest to the numerous errors that result.
Life would be a lot easier for us if every recycling company had the identical standards for recycling. It would be wonderful if there were a set of national standards. This, of course, would mean not allowing some companies to process things that most other companies could not process. These “superior” companies would complain that not only had they spent a lot of money to buy specialized equipment, but that we were harming the environment by not recycling these materials. In theory that is true, but consider the practice. The confusion caused by inconsistent standards means that people do not understand what is possible and, as a result, violate the rules. So either they don’t recycle at all or they recycle incorrectly, causing entire truckloads of material to be discarded because they’re contaminated. If we recycled a smaller set of materials, we might end up with a higher compliance rate, so overall, the effect would be an increase in recycling.
But even standards have their own problems. They tend to lock a system into a consistent set of rules that prevents progress. Even if everyone agreed to a new standard, putting it into place would be difficult. Suppose, for example, that new technology was developed that allowed you to recycle items that contained food waste. A solution would be to establish a new standard, but with a sufficient lead time so that most companies would be able to upgrade their equipment. In the grace period, companies would not be allowed to advertise that they could accept waste that follows the new standard, because if they did, consumers would get confused; we would have different companies with different rules, which is what the introduction of standards was supposed to prevent. Is this a workable solution? You decide.
The legacy problem
When I was a vice president at Apple, I was often criticized because my solution to each major problem we faced was to recommend a redesign. The criticism was valid, because even though the suggested redesign would eliminate the problem (and produce other benefits), the change would be expensive. Worse, the changes might confuse our customers and even make some existing applications unworkable. Once a system is in place, it is difficult to make changes: This is called the legacy problem.
At Apple, developers would tell me they had a better way of doing things than our standards allowed. I would often agree but hold them to those standards anyway. Yes, the new way might be better for that one application, but if every application used different methods, chaos would reign.
Well, chaos reigns in recycling. It is time for a change.
Don Norman wears many hats, including professor and director of the Design Lab at UC San Diego, cofounder of the Nielsen Norman group, professor (Harvard, UC San Diego, Northwestern, KAIST, Tongji), business exec (former VP at Apple, executive at HP), on company boards and company advisor, and author of best-selling books on design: Emotional Design, Living with Complexity, and Design of Everyday Things. Learn more at jnd.org.
This is part one of a two-part series on the design of recycling. In the second essay, Norman argues that recycling is the wrong answer to the problem of waste.