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Waste is an enormous problem. But recycling is the wrong solution

Recycling violates every principle of human-centered design, writes user-friendly design expert Don Norman. And business culture is to blame.

Waste is an enormous problem. But recycling is the wrong solution
[Source Image: joebelanger/iStock]
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I am proud to be one of the developers of what is today called human-centered design. That is design that always starts off understanding the needs, capabilities, and desires of people. It has four basic principles, all four of which are being violated by today’s recycling craze.

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Recycling is broken. There’s little clarity about what can and can’t be recycled, and the rules change from one city to the next, and sometimes even within the same city. According to the World Bank, we produce 1.4 billion tons of waste a year worldwide, a figure that’s expected to increase to 2.4 billion tons by 2025. Waste is an enormous problem that needs to be addressed if we’re going to prevent the worst effects of climate change. But recycling is the wrong solution.

The principles of human-centered design—and where recycling goes wrong

Before I get into why, let’s look at the characteristics of a good design solution. Human-centered design’s four principles are:

1. Focus on the people.
2. Solve the underlying problem, not the symptoms.
3. Everything is part of a system: Design for the system.
4. Prototype ideas, test, and refine them, over and over again.

Do recyclers focus on people? Obviously not. Everything about recycling lacks any attempt to make it understandable and easy for people to obey the proper rules. We find it difficult to find the rules that apply to where we live. The rules are continually changing. The rules that are applied where we live are often different from those where we work—or wherever we might be. And even when we find the rules, we cannot always understand them.

Recycling is only one small part of the entire system. It starts with the mining and drilling that allows us to extract raw materials from the earth. Then it includes the complex mechanical and chemical processing to make raw materials usable. To lower costs and enhance performance, new materials are invented as well as clever combinations of existing materials. We meld wood and leather, paper, plastic, metal, and cloth. When the manufactured goods are shipped, they are often placed in complex boxes and packaging made from material that may not be recyclable. The system is not designed to solve the problem: The system is the problem.

Many companies do test and refine their products to make sure that they deliver value, understanding, and enjoyment. But the product is more than the product: The product is part of a system, and it is the system that is destroying the environment, the communities, and the planet in which we live.

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The real culprit in the story of recycling is failure to identify the core, underlying problem. Recycling is the symptom. The underlying problem is the design and manufacturing of so much stuff that has to be discarded. Recycling is a poor attempt to solve the symptoms.

Recycling is the symptom: The fundamental problem is neglect of the system

In a larger sense, human-centered design proposes that the entire purpose of our products is to make people’s lives better and more enjoyable. Manufacturers may have these goals for their products, but that only addresses one small part of the system. The system includes everything: mining the core materials and transporting them. Manufacturing, advertising, delivery, packaging, servicing, and disposal. Companies are very concerned about cost and productivity of their workers. There is insufficient concern about the harm to people and to society. Indeed, manufacturers often say, “These are not our concern, these are up to our customers.” Nonsense, I say.

The problem with recycling starts with the choice of materials used to build the product. The materials are optimized for performance and cost, but rarely is the societal cost considered: cost to the environment in mining and manufacturing the materials; cost to the environment in manufacturing the product; cost to the environment in shipping, selling, and packaging the product; and then the cost and difficulties of disposing of it at the end of its life cycle. Why don’t we require manufacturers to consider the costs to the environment (and the side effect of poisoning the waterways and ground)? Why are so many of the objects we buy non-repairable? If more products were designed to be used and reused, we would have less material to recycle.

In 1971, the (then) famous designer, Victor Papanek wrote in a prescient book Design for the real world: human ecology and social change:

There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. . . . by creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed.

I only disagree with two things. First, I replace the words “industrial design” with “design.” In 1971, industrial designers were indeed the main culprits, but today the blame has to be more widely distributed. Second, I disagree with the placement of all of the blame upon designers. Most designers are in mid-level layers of authority. They have little choice but to follow the dictates of their bosses or their clients. The real blame belongs to business culture.

I do not see a widespread attempt to use materials that are readily reusable. Instead, the burden is placed upon the citizens of the world: Recycle or be punished! Even though the rules are incomplete, continually changing, and different for different collection agencies. Why are people who purchase the stuff to blame? We seldom have any choice in the matter. Want some water? We are given single-use cups or plastic bottles. Want to purchase a computer or cellphone? We are forced to buy phones made out of multiple complex materials that are difficult to repair and difficult to recycle. Worse, we are expected to discard our phone and purchase a new one every few years. If we want to clean up the environment, we must clean up the system, starting with the manufacturers.

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Human-centered design solutions exist

We need to rethink the wide variety of materials used for our products. How about requiring batteries to be replaceable and recyclable in standardized sizes so that they could be easily replaced? Today even though electrical requirements are somewhat standard, batteries sizes and their enclosures are sometimes designed for a specific device model, making it difficult to find the proper replacement. How about requiring that all products have easily replaceable components and that they be easily dismantled so they can be reused?

I am not the only person making this plea. A simple search on the internet for variations of the words “recycling,” “complexity,” and “mixed materials” yields more articles than can be read. EcoWatch has an article on “the complex and frustrating reality of recycling plastic.” Leyla Acaroglu on Medium argues that, “Yes, recycling is broken,” concluding that, “[t]he undeniable issue is that we have created a disposable culture, and no amount of recycling will fix it.” We need to remedy this illness at the root cause: producer-enforced disposability and the rapid normalization of a throwaway culture.

Even countries that are more progressive and organized than the United States have a tough time enforcing recycling. Germany, for example, requires automobile manufacturers to take back and recycle end-of-life vehicles. In fact, Germany is one of the leading nations in the world in terms of the amount of material that is put into recycling bins. Note the phrasing: “put into the bins.” Putting something into the bin does not lead to recycling. An article by the German media company dw.com points out that of the 3 million tons of plastic packaging waste, a little less than half (48.8%) was put into bins, but only 38% of that was actually recycled. Why? Here we go again: because recycling is far too complex for ordinary people to understand. In Germany half of the non-plastic rubbish is put into the bins for plastic. Recycling is important, but it is done badly. So it is not the solution to the underlying problem that we create too much stuff that has to be discarded.

Many people and organizations are banding together to prevent the manufacturing of non-reusable stuff. It is wonderful. I applaud the effort and wish to strengthen their arguments by adding the viewpoint of human-centered design. Single-use plastics and complex materials may appear to be simpler to use and cheaper for the companies, but they neglect the impact upon ordinary people, the very people who are the customers of the industries that have created this mess. Companies do not have to bear the extra costs to the environment—that is left up to countries and municipalities as well as to individuals. We are blamed for the problems caused by companies.

We need to stop our fussing over the symptoms. Solve the root, underlying cause and the symptoms disappear. Yes, just as in an illness, it is still necessary to treat the symptoms. Both healthcare and the environment do need band-aids and quick methods to relieve the symptoms. But unless we stop the underlying cause, the disease on our environment will continue to flourish.


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.

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This is part one of a two-part series on the design of recycling. Read the first essay here.