Essays & Articles


Recycling: A poor solution to the wrong problem: An essay in two parts

Recycling bins at the UC San Diego Student Center, 2020. (Photo by author)

This is a two-part essay, published on different days in the magazine, Fast Company.  (Note that the Fast Company editor creates the title.)

Part 1: I’m an expert on complex design systems. Even I can’t figure out recycling

Part 2: Waste is an enormous problem. But recycling is the wrong solution

The two links above get you to the two parts at Fast Company. Here is my draft.

Part 1: Why Recycling Fails

Recycling? The concept is pretty simple. Throw away stuff that can be reused, melted down, chopped up, made back into useful stuff. Problem is, I don’t understand how to recycle.

What can be recycled? It is difficult to find out what can and cannot be recycled and difficult to understand the instructions that are provided. The rules vary from location to location, and even at one location they can change from year to year.

Not only are the rules difficult to understand, but they are constantly changing (“Check frequently with your recycler to see what their current requirements are” states one of the websites that tries to be helpful.) The other problem is that there are so many different kinds of paper goods, so many different kinds of plastics, and metals, and worse of all, so many things that are combinations of materials or exotic new inventions of material scientists, that no list could possibly include every possible case.

I started to write about the recycling of milk cartons, starting off by doing some research on the topic. Alas, the more I read, the more confused I got. Most authoritative articles say yes, you can (in theory) recycle milk cartons. 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!” What re they made from? Regular milk cartons are made from paperboard, polyethylene, or plastic and shelf-stable cartons (aseptic) add a layer of aluminum. And yes, says the Carton Council, we should recycle all of them with plastic, metal, and glass containers. Oh, and 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 just after this strong statement that these are all recyclable, the Carton Council presents me with a text field so I can enter my zip code to see if my community recycles cartons. (Hmm, why do I have to tell you where I live? I thought the answer was “yes.”) When I put in my zip code, 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 8th largest city in the United States.)

It seems impossible to find the rules for my home. We are not given the standard printed handout, so I was forced to search online. But the company that collects my trash serves many locations across the United States, each one with different rules. After once again entering my street address and zip code, I was given a list of acceptable items: Yes, it says I can recycle milk cartons. But, wait, in another location on the very same page of that website (just a small scroll away), there is a list of acceptable items: milk cartons do not appear.

Paper is recyclable. So unused tissues, which are paper, should be recyclable, right? Well, some websites say “yes,” others say “no.”

Plastics. Look for the recycling symbol – that triangle with a number inside — but even if you find it, it only adds to the confusion. Note how difficult it is to find: Sometimes it is just a very tiny triangle made of slightly raised plastic on the bottom of the item, so even if you can find it, it requires a flashlight and sometimes a magnifying class to read. But even if you can read the number, then what? The numbers that can be recycled depends upon where you live and what the recycling company is capable of doing. It also depends upon the world-wide 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 the recycling of 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 auto had their basic controls in a different location. The layout of the typewriter keyboard, the layout called “qwerty” in the United States, 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, it is easier for everyone. 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 was a set of national standards. This, of course, would mean not allowing some companies to profess 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 the specialized equipment required, but that we were harming the environment by not recycling these other 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, oftentimes leading either a failure to recycle or causing entire truckloads of material to be discarded because they were 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.

Standards have their own problems. It tends to lock the system into a consistent set of rules that prevents progress. And even if everyone agreed to the new standard, putting it into place would be difficult. Suppose, for example, that new technology was developed that allowed the recycling of items that contained food waste (in today’s language, we would say the items were contaminated). Even one badly contaminated can cause an entire shipment to be discarded. A solution would be to establish the new standard, but with a sufficient lead time that most companies would be able to upgrade their equipment for the new standard. In the grace period, they would not be allowed to advertise that they could accept waste that followed the new standard, because if they did, we would then have different companies with different rules – which is what the introduction of standards was supposed to prevent. Is this a workable solution” You decide.

When I was a VP 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.

And when I was 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 to change.

Part 2: Why Recycling is the Wrong Answer to the Problem of Waste

I am a designer, proud to be one of the developers of what is today called “Human-Centered Design (HCD).” That is design that always starts off understanding the needs, capabilities, and desires of people. Human-Centered Design has four basic principles, all four of which are being violated by the craze to recycle.

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.

Every one of the principles of HCD is violates in today’s world of recycling.

Do recyclers focus upon the 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 the 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 packing made from material that may not be recyclable. The system is not designed to solve the problem: The system is the problem.

Yes, many companies do test and refine their products to make sure that they deliver the required 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.

However, the real culprit in the story of recycling is failure to identify the core, underlying problem. Recycling is the symptom. The underlying core issue lies in 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 Lies in Neglect of the System

The fundamental principle of human-centered design is 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 difficulty 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 almost never 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 disposing 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? Designed to use and throw away, instead of use and reuse. Our items should be designed for the betterment of society and the environment. This would lead to less material to be recycled and, moreover, greater ease in reuse.

In 1971, the (then) famous designer, Victor Papanek wrote his book “Design for the real world: human ecology and social change.”  Here are some excerpts from the opening paragraph of that book:

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. But 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 the business culture.

I do not see an attempt to use materials that are readily reusable. I see that the designers and manufacturers are free to do whatever they wish: 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 the 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 get at, difficult to repair, and difficult to recycle. Worse, it is expected that we discard our phone and purchase new ones every few years. If we want to clean up the environment, we must clean up the system, starting with the manufacturers.

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 the electrical requirements are somewhat standard, batteries sizes and their enclosures are sometimes designed for a specific model of the device making it difficult to find the proper replacement. How about requiring that all products have easily replaceable components and that they be easily dismantled for quality recycling.

I am not the only person making this plea. A simple search on the internet for variations of the words “recycling” “Complexity” “mixed materials” yields more articles than can be read. Eco Watch has an article on “the complex and frustrating reality of recycling plastic. Leyla Acaroglu in Medium argues that “Yes, recycling is broken,” concluding that “The 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 increase of a throwaway culture being normal (with the phrase “throwaway culture” leading to a National Geographic article on “Why our throwaway culture has to end.”

Other countries are leading the way. 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.compoints 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. Then again, it is not the solution to the underlying problem of the creation of so much stuff that has to be discarded.

All the many people and organizations that are banding together to prevent the manufacturing of non-reusable stuff 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. Moreover, industry does not have to bear the extra costs to the environment that they are causing that is left up to the countries and municipalities as well as to individuals. We are blamed for the problems caused by industry.

We need to stop the cause and stop our fussing upon the symptoms. Solve the root, underlying cause and the symptoms will 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 in both healthcare and the environment, unless we all stop the underlying cause, the diseases to both people and the environment will continue to flourish.


Don Norman wears many hats, including Professor and Director of the Design lab at UC San Diego, co-founder 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