Reimagining USQ's Public Space Recycling

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There’s been a lot of trash talk in Union Square this year. From studying what’s thrown out in our public space waste bins, encouraging participants to use reusable bottles at Summer in the Square, diverting over 90% of waste from landfill at Harvest in the Square, and organizing a zero waste forum for local businesses and organizations, the Union Square Partnership is working hard to help our district move toward zero waste.  

As one of our next initiatives, the Union Square Partnership is working to bring public space recycling back to our district and make it better and more effective than ever. Union Square Park was the NYC Department of Sanitation’s Manhattan pilot location in 2007 for public space recycling. However, consumer confusion about which which bin items should go in coupled with the large volume of trash generated in Union Square meant that the recycling bins were rarely used properly and contamination of recyclables - such as plastics, mixed paper, and glass - were high. We learned from our waste characterization study that over 85% of the materials thrown out in Union Square could be recycled, composted, or reused and diverted from the landfill if properly disposed. We’re committed to making that happen.

With support from evian and Danone North America, we engaged IDEO, a global design firm, to undertake a month-long prototyping exercise to design a new waste collection system and consumer campaign for Union Square. This fall, IDEO visited a few areas around Union Square Park to ask people what would motivate and help them to dispose of materials – be it a coffee cup, food packaging, newspaper, or water bottle – properly so that they can be recycled or composted. Watch this video for a peek into the research in action and hear what the Union Square community had to say!

Here are a few things we took away from IDEO’s research:

  1. Specificity is key. Creating individual bins for certain items, such as coffee cups, food containers, or liquids, that frequently contaminate recyclables and food scraps helps reduce confusion for consumers when they’re throwing something out and keeps valuable materials clean and usable.

  2. Recycling practices vary everywhere. Where possible, use standard colors for certain materials streams - e.g., blue for plastic, glass, and metal - even for custom bins. As Union Square is home to a diverse community and attracts visitors from around the world, creating multi-lingual messaging and incorporating simple icons can also make the bins more accessible.

  3. Carrots are better than sticks. Community members shared that they best way to get people to stop and pay attention is to make recycling fun and positive. As one person shared, “those who care have already cried about it,” implying that shame tactics aren’t likely to work.

  4. Tap into neighborhood pride. People were excited to see designs with a pop of color or ones that reflected architectural elements already found in the the Park, such as the hexagonal paving stones on the plazas.

In 2019, the Union Square Partnership will be piloting a new public collection system and education campaign in Union Square Park based on IDEO’s findings and your input. As we plan for the pilot, please share your ideas on how we can reduce waste, improve recycling, and build the zero waste movement in our district!