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Effective Recycling Bin Labels Reduce Consumer Confusion About Recycling

When educating the public around what is and is not accepted for recycling, space and attention spans are limited. Evidence-based research shows which recycling bin labels are most effective at reducing confusion about recycling 

The Recycling Partnership’s recently released Recycling Confidence Index demonstrates the close correlation between educational support and confident recycling.  Our research found that the highest levels of recycling confidence exist where individuals receive recycling communications and support, including convenient bins, recycling knowledge and information, and motivational messages.  

So what does good recycling knowledge and education look like? Data from an OpinionWorks study, shows information about what does and does not go into the recycling container should include:  

  • Detailed information offered with visual simplicity 
  • Grouping of recyclable items into logical categories to help people quickly process information and make accurate recycling decisions 
  • Showing a preference for clear and literal language 

The Recycling Partnership’s Free Recycling Labels Were Best at Reducing Confusion about Recycling

To determine the best practices of how to communicate the basic “Yes” and “No” instructions for what is accepted in recycling, The Recycling Partnership user tested a variety of concepts to find out not just what people prefer aesthetically, but what helps ensure correct decisions when it comes to what should and should not be recycled. 

  • When shown a well-organized mailer displaying clear dos and don’ts of recycling like The Recycling Partnership’s infocard (as seen in Campaign Builder), and asked whether or not a material should go in recycling, people readily found the answer. 
  • In many cases, participants became visibly and audibly overwhelmed or even pushed away when they encountered a sample that threw a laundry list of what is and isn’t accepted for recycling at them, was cluttered with unnecessary graphics, or required too much effort to navigate. 

Among tested recycling labels, The Recycling Partnership’s recycling signage – available to customize and download for free in DIYSigns – received the highest score for conveying information correctly in the survey user test, and respondents rated it the easiest to use. Repeatedly in the qualitative interviews, people chose The Recycling Partnership’s label/signage as their favorite, because it did the best job of exhibiting the principles of good information sharing and design outlined in the report. 


(Participant): “I definitely like this one.”
(Interviewer): “Really?”
(Participant): “Yeah.”
(Interviewer): “Tell me what makes you like this one.”
(Participant): “The images, they look like they’re actually, you know, products… The stuff that can’t be recycled has like a little line across it. And then I also like the stuff that can be recycled, its labeling in the blue color.” “If I would receive this, I would just feel like very happy that I did. And this would be like, ‘Whoa, you know, this is nice.’ I would just make an effort to do more than what I’m doing.”

best recycling bin label
Other Best Practices for Designing Educational Materials for Recycling 

In addition to testing labels for recycling bins, the study offered evidence-based research that included these top five recommendations to improve recycling information:  

  1. People feel committed and confident about their ability to recycle.  
  2. Even though people want information about what to recycle, and what to leave out of the recycling container, detailed information can be overwhelming.  
  3. Realistic material images and terminology with the right amount of color and groupings play an important role in engaging people.  
  4. Where the information will be displayed drives the level of detail that people want.  
  5. People want phone and web contact information, so they know where to go with questions. 

As a mission-driven not-for-profit, The Recycling Partnership is working to ensure that people CAN and DO recycle. Through the launch of our Center for Sustainable Behavior & Impact, we are driving innovative, measurable, and human-centered solutions that such as effective recycling container labels that can be replicated at scale.

Through our on-the-ground work across thousands of U.S. communities and free open-source tools and resources such as Campaign Builder and DIYSigns for Recycling, our collective impact has diverted more than 770 million incremental pounds of valuable recyclables from landfills into the recycling stream and driven significant reductions in recycling contamination rates in communities nationwide.  

Download the Report