Features, specifications and considerations when selecting outdoor bins.
I got my start in recycling as a student worker emptying outdoor bins on my campus. There was one style of bin I particularly hated to service. It was square shaped and required pulling full 25-gallon bags straight up to shoulder height to clear the rim at top of the bin. It was an ergonomic nightmare made worse by the bin’s design. The smooth inner wall created a suction effect as you struggled to pull the bag up. Even worse, as the bag reached the top of the opening, a point at which your arms were extended above your head and your back was bearing the full weight of the bag’s contents, it would catch and frequently rip open on a quarter inch wide metal collar that wrapped around the inside of the rim. Oh, and the bins leaked residual soda all over the ground. AND the label was tiny. No one noticed it and simply tossed items into whichever opening was closest. Worst bin ever.
Not that that stopped our facilities dept from buying more of them. The campus architect liked how they looked, and workmen’s comp claims went to a different office.
Maybe you’re only concerned with finding bins to match the nearby site furnishings. But if you want them to actually function, to minimize operational and maintenance costs and avoid chronic contamination, it’s worth taking the time to understand the features and specs that make this possible. There are lots of attractive bins on the market that also perform well. But its critical that focus on aesthetics not relegate functionality to an afterthought. To do so is to invest thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars in an infrastructure that fails from the moment it’s installed. Enough said. Let’s talk specs.
Feedback From the Front Lines
There’s a lot you can learn from a sales catalog. There’s even more you can glean from the folks running collection programs. I’ve collected the following notes over the years from personal experience and talking with local operation managers. I also reached out to Busch System’s R&D team and the sales reps to learn what they hear from customers. BTW – this is intended to be a living blog with additions and refinements over time. If you have noteworthy point you don’t see reflected here (or disagree with one of mine), please shoot me an email (email@example.com). I’d love to compare notes and expand this list as a resource for others.
People are complicated and recycling is one way they demonstrate that. There’ve been dozens if not hundreds of academic studies done about recycling behavior, but I’ll try to keep this to a couple paragraphs: Most people are willing to sort their recycling from trash, but they aren’t going to focus a lot of attention on it. You have to make recycling convenient and intuitive. In an outdoor on-the-go location you can’t assume people will bother to study the label and make a thoughtful decision which opening to toss their item into. They’re more likely to treat it as a distraction from what they’re doing or actually focusing their attention on. In a situation like that, the appearance of the bins themselves must communicate to people which opening to use. High-level, well-designed bins do this by:
- Using different colors to distinguish one collection stream from another. The more prominent the color distinction the better.
- Including restrictive openings that force people to concentrate when dropping items into the bins.
- Using prominent labels & signage. Stick to a few key words and images (e.g. Can and Bottles) and make them large enough for people to see from a distance. Pro-tip: off the shelf labels may be good enough for small facilities with a handful of bins. But for a large deployment of dozens or hundreds of bins – especially where contamination is a problem, its pays to do audits and use their insights about the composition of the waste stream to create custom labels and signs with specific messaging. There’s more nuance than we can cover hear, read this separate blog series if you’re interested to dive in further.
- Adding a dome or canopy that sticks up from the top of the recycling bin (but not the trash) provides a visual prompt distinguishing the two streams. This is especially useful for people approaching from a distance, so that they have plenty of advance time to process the knowledge and be prepared to use the correct bins by the time they reach them.
- Applying uniform standards for style, colors and signage whenever bins are purchased or replaced. Learn more about design standards.
For a deeper dive about using the bins to influence recycling behavior, check out this blog about parks & rec recycling, or check out this best practice guide I wrote for Keep America Beautiful a few years back.
- Capacity: Choosing the right size comes down to a number of factors. The first three are inextricably linked: 1) how much material is generated, 2) how many bins will be set out (and therefore total capacity), and 3) how frequently will they be serviced. It’s impossible to give specific advice on this without being grounded in the local situation. What can be said in general terms is that outdoor bins vary anywhere from 15-to-50 gallons, but most commonly between 25 and 35-gallons. With labor being the most significant ongoing cost, there’s an obvious impulse to go with additional capacity. And in fact several Busch Systems sales reps I asked said they’ve seen greater interest for 45+ gallon bins in recent years.
But there can be compelling reasons not to go with larger bins: Larger capacity equals heavier weight and greater ergonomic strain on collection workers (see discussion further down). Larger (or more) bins may require a larger footprint or have a greater visual presence that detracts from the aesthetic appeal of a space. Also keep in mind seasonal fluctuation and the potential for surge occasions like special events or a sunny day after a long winter. Before simply buying more or larger bins to handle the maximum capacity needed, consider planning your permanent bin capacity based on the higher range for normal occasions, and then supplement these with light weight temporary bins for the surge occasions.
- Rigid inner liner: Some models come with these “bins within a bin”, and some don’t. They generally add to the cost but are worth it. They make it easier to remove and handle the content of bins. They generally do a better job of holding bag liners in place versus hooks that can allow them to fall to the bottom of the chamber. With bag liners increasingly viewed as a contaminate by recycling processing facilities, rigid liners allow you to avoid bags altogether provided there is a system to clean the liners more frequently. If you’re opting to use bags with rigid liners, make sure the rigid liner has venting channels or gradually tapers outward from top to bottom to avoid the suction affect when bags are pulled out. Be warned, rigid liners are at risk of being snatched since they can’t be easily tethered to the bin itself.
- Bag liners: If your operation is dependent on bag liners, make sure the bin model you’re considering is compatible with standard dimension bags available from any supplier. Some bins require bags with special unique dimensions that can be hard to source and add an ongoing premium cost to your operating budget.
- Top vs side or front-loading: Side or front-load bins allow workers to swing a door open to remove contents instead of having to lift them out of the top. They avoid the ergonomic risk of top load bins that I described in the introduction. But the hinges and extra engineering to add a door can substantially increase the cost. The other consideration to give pause is with colder climates where accumulated snow and ice can block access to side-load bins.
- Cables vs. hinge to secure lid. Except in low-risk, controlled locations, the lid on a top-load bin should be secured to the bin itself so it can’t be removed altogether. A hinged lid will be more expensive versus a lower-cost cable that allows it to move freely. The problem with cables, though, is that they can cause the lid to repeatedly bang into the side of the bin when careless workers or scavengers pull them off and drop them too casually. This can lead to denting and cracked finish that leads to rust over time.
- Flaps or baffles. You might be tempted to include self-closing flaps on the bin opening to keep out precipitation or control pests. Proceed with caution. They become gross, and especially in the post-COVID world, people will stack items on top of the bin or toss them into other openings to avoid touching them. It could be argued rubber baffles (think of the sink drains that pass down into a garbage disposal) help avoid yellow jackets, but they’re at risk of the same dynamic. From my experience, only situations where wildlife are likely to get into bins warrant closed openings that require people to touch them.
- Anchoring: Consider if and how the bins should be moveable. The default for a public space like a park or downtown area should be to anchor them down to avoid random people separating the bins or pushing them over. If you’re going with concrete bins there’s probably nothing to worry about. Otherwise, you’ll likely want to mount the bins either to a vertical feature like a wall or post, bolt them to a concrete slab or fasten them to each other. Most vendors include or will sell mounting hardware on request. Don’t rush down this path without talking to the collection crew or facility managers first. There may be reoccurring reasons the bins need to be moved, and therefore require easily reversible anchoring hardware.
- Drain hole: Whether from rain or half-full drink bottles, liquids can accumulate inside the bin, adding to the weight collection workers have to lift out of the bin. For that reason, our sales team said most choose to order bins with drain holes pre-drilled in the bottom. On the flip side, it may be a greater concern to prevent liquids seeping out the bottom and potentially staining the concrete.
- Design flaws that create headaches: Beyond the obvious features one looks for, bins have particular “under-the hood” design elements that make them easier or harder to service. I mentioned how some rigid liners are susceptible to the suction effect… or not. As our product development chief John Lajner pointed out, well-designed bins anticipate and work to avoid the random flaws that can plague lower quality bins. Lids that stick and have to be wrestled open, structural collars or bolts that protrude in and catch the rigid liner as it’s being pulled out. Sharp edges that rip bags. Design flaws that aren’t obvious from a catalog photo can be a chronic nuisance that slows down collection crews. Especially if considering a large purchase or designating a long-term bin standard, it pays to order and test sample bins in the field for a month or more to give the crews a chance to kick the tires.
- Internal deflector between chambers: This applies to all-in-one cabinet style bins designed with an outer shell that houses separate rigid liners for multiple collection streams. To keep items tossed through an opening at an awkward angle from falling into the cavity between liners or into the liner for a different stream, well designed bins include deflectors that guide waste into the intended chamber.
- Ease to clean: Bins that look shiny and new coming out of the crate can quickly become grimy if not downright gross. Beyond looking bad, dirty looking bins create negative perceptions that can that reduce recycling participation and increase contamination. Regularly cleaning bins with materials or detergents recommended by the manufacturer will also extend their appearance and useful life, especially with powder coated surfaces.
When purchasing bins, consider how design elements will impact the need and operational complexity for cleaning. The color and material you choose can either obscure or accentuate accumulated grit, influencing how frequently they need to be cleaned. A smooth surface with fewer angles and design contours will generally be easier to wipe down than a heavily textured surface or bins with lots of intricate folds, etc. If they’ll be located in an area with smokers, be mindful of how people stubbing out cigarettes on the bin itself can permanently scar plastic surfaces or decals.
- Maintenance: Good outdoor bins aren’t cheap, so you want one that’s built to last and that is easy to maintain. Ask the sales rep up front which parts are most susceptible to wear and tear, and how easy and expensive they are to replace.
- Site considerations: Consider where the bins are going to know if there are space constraints that restrict the available footprint for multiple bins or multi-chamber cabinets. If going in a park or natural setting, will they warrant pouring a new concrete pad?
It’s a harsh world out there, and bins can start to fall apart quickly if not designed for the setting. Let’s break the possible risks into a couple categories:
Risk #1: Heavy Use & Abuse
The activities and usage patterns happening in and around waste bins cans present an equal or greater menace than the elements. How this knowledge should inform what bin you choose depends on making a distinction between higher or lower levels of risk locations. Lower risk will include “sheltered” areas such as an internal building courtyard, a private marina, concourse of an amphitheater or a pathway on a college campus – areas overtly or passively designed to restrict who has access and what activities are permitted. Higher risk areas are less controlled, exposing bins to heavy use and abuse – street corners, public parks, nature trails, etc. Not all bins have to be built bomb proof, but it’s important to judge the level of exposure bins will have in a setting. Some things to consider:
- Toughness: Bins in high-risk locations need to be solidly built to stand up to vandalism and things knocking into them. Steel bins should be at least 14 or even 12 gauge (note: lower gauge = thicker construction, higher gauge = thinner). Anything above 14 gauge will be susceptible to dents when things knock into them. Product website and catalogs don’t always list this spec and the photos may not accurately represent a bins toughness, so be prepared pick up the phone to chat up a sales rep.
With plastic bins it really depends on the type of construction. Roto molded plastic is a safer bet. It’s resistant to denting, will never require painting, and of course won’t rust. Concrete bins are another good alternative..
- Certain locations & associated activities present special risks:
- Supermarket parking lots. Shopping carts may not dent steel bins they bang into, but they can easily crack the powder coating and expose them to rust.
- Golf course. Same as above.
- Maintenance crews: Beware placing bins on the edge of pathways, curbs or lawn areas where snow removal equipment, lawn mowers or even weed whackers are a reoccurring threat to clip the side or chip the finish.
- Dog parks: Add dog urine to the list of things that cause bins to rust!
- Graffiti resistant: Some materials resist spray paint better than others. Textured roto molded plastic is a good call in particular
- Use Locks at Your Own Peril: Locks on the door or lid will prevent some people from pilfering cans or absconding with the rigid inner liner, but it will inspire others to use destructive force to reach that objective. Instead of protecting a couple dollars-worth of cans you end up with a $400 repair bill. In urban areas with beverage container deposits, experienced recycling managers will tell you to just let people take the items and avoid the headache. Some bins even facilitate scavenging with a small canopy-style chamber for cans and bottles suspended above the opening to the main trash chamber. This allows people to easily pick out the containers without having to dig through or remove and litter the contents of the main bin. The canopy includes a hinged flap on the bottom, so that if too many cans and bottles do accumulate the weight will simply cause them to fall through the bottom of the recycling chamber into the upward facing opening of the trash chamber.
- Labels: While all decal labels fade or peel over time, some perform better & longer than others. Especially where they’re exposed to direct sunlight, consider paying the premium for a higher-quality option. High tac vinyl does a decent job withstanding UV rays, but Alupanel and Sintra are two options that hold up better. This is a topic worth discussing with your sales rep – and if your situation warrants higher-quality labels and the bin manufacturer doesn’t offer them, look into 3rd party decal vendors.
Risk #2: Environmental / Climate Damage
- Sun: In deserts, tropical or other climates with intense sun, UV rays can begin to bleach and degrade bins or parts made from plastic in just a few years. Some manufacturers offer variations of their bins with a special additive in the plastic resin to make them more resilient to the sun. Plastic lumber bins are at the mercy extreme heat. Don’t put them out exposed to the sun in a place like Dubai unless you’re willing to tolerate warpage.
- Wind: Even if lighter-weight bins are bolted down, lids must be well secured to avoid becoming projectiles. Canopy-style lids in particular are susceptible to catching the wind and being blown off or pulling unsecured bins onto their side. Another concern is wind creating a suction effect that pulls the bag liner and contents out of the opening of the bin. In areas prone to high winds avoid mesh or slat-sided bins with gaps that allow wind to sweep through and lift items out the opening. This is another argument for rigid inner liners and smaller restrictive openings.
- Ice & Freezing Conditions: The threat comes in several forms:
- Regular fluctuation between freezing and non-freezing temperatures will cause plastic lumber to expand and contract, putting stress on interconnected joints that will cause warping and cracking over time. John Lajner, Busch System’s head of product development said his team intentionally designs plastic lumber bins to avoid this by using solid sheets without sunken cutout grooves to fasten the horizontal top and bottom to the vertical walls.
- Rain will inevitably get into cracks and crevices, including with metal hinges. When dropping temperatures turn water to ice, the expanding force can stretch seams into gaps and loosen the hardware holding the bin together.
- Where there’s ice there’s usually salt or de-icing chemicals to melt it. Beware of steel bins along roads or even pathways that are commonly treated. While powder coating gives the aura of protection, it can and will eventually chip. Rust can then spread undetected underneath the shell of the coating. The type of steel used is important. Zinc coated offers greater protection than bare or “cold roll” steel, but the best protection comes from stainless steel. And it’s not just the bin itself, but the hardware you need to be mindful of. Even plastic bins may have steel hinges or fasteners. Where the risk is high, it’s worth paying more for stainless steel hardware.
- Marine Environments: Placing bins on the beach, a boardwalk or even within a few miles of salt water? Read the last bullet above.
- Sand & Dirt: … are the enemy of moving parts. Sand or dirt particulate can get into the crevices of traditional metal hinges and locks, causing them to wear down faster. John Lajner, Busch System’s head of product development recommends bins for beaches and dusty areas that rely on a different system using plastic Acetron rods to hinge the doors.
- Rain & Snow: Either of these can cause water to accumulate at the bottom of the bin, potentially adding significant weight to the liner that workers have to remove. For bins placed in uncovered areas, consideration should be given to models with side-facing openings or some type of canopy or dome to deflect precipitation away from an upward facing opening. Of course, high-winds can make this even more complicated. Reason #3 for restrictive openings. See the reference to self-closing flaps above. These aren’t the solution.
A lot has changed with recycling in just the past five years. Market conditions, contamination concerns and other factors have forced many communities to adjust what materials can be accepted for recycling, or even adding or subtracting entire collection streams (and the corresponding bin). We can’t see into the future, but there is value to observing current trends and thinking strategically about your long-term waste diversion goals. You may not be collecting food organics now, but is it possible three or four years now? Many communities have consolidated multi-stream recycling down to a “single-stream” in recent decades, and yet others have reversed this trend in just the last few years. Anticipating the possibilities, you should consider bin purchases that leave flexibility for adjustments including:
- Easy to replace labels & signage. Decals are relatively easy to replace if the range of acceptable materials changes. Some bin models include sign boards that allow inserts to be replaced easily and at minimal cost. Hot stamping or other permanent markings on the bin itself are fine to brand it for your program, but avoid details about what goes into a specific chamber that tie your hands down the road.
- Reassigning bins or compartments to different streams. Bins may be switched around between facilities over time, or a decision could be made to eliminate redundant trash bins and rebrand these for recycling to pair with the remaining trash units. Whatever the eventuality, using interchangeable bins for all material streams will allow you repurpose them with a fresh coat of paint or replacement lid and avoid the need to purchase new bins while sidelining others. If going with cabinet style bins that include multiple collection streams within a single unit, you should put extra care to anticipating any scenarios that could lead to additional collection streams later. You can’t add chambers to a cabinet after the fact.
Manufacturing recycling bins impacts the environment like anything else we manufacture. That impact is greater or lesser depending on several decisions you make as the purchaser:
- Made of post-consumer recycled material: The best way to insure your service provider or recycling centers continues taking the scrap items your collecting is to show solidarity and specify (or award extra bid-points for) bins with post- consumer recycled content. Recycling centers can only take recyclable materials that they in turn can sell to companies who will process it into the clean feedstock that manufacturers pay for. Post-consumer means the material was actually consumed by someone and then collected through programs like yours. Pre-consumer recycled content means the material was left over scraps recovered from an industrial manufacturing. Which is ok, but it doesn’t create the economic demand needed to fund the collection system your recycling efforts are reliant on. The other reason to purchase bins made from post-consumer recycled content is, of course, environmental. While it’s important to keep waste out of the landfill, the real value of recycling is that it replaces the virgin materials that would otherwise be used. And that, in turn prevents the need to mine, drill or otherwise extract natural resources that have far greater impact on the planet. Bins made out of steel often include at least some post-consumer recycled content even if it isn’t advertised. On the other hand, you can assume that plastic bins are made from virgin resins unless they are specifically identified as having recycled content.
- Made in North America: Purchasing bins made in the US and Canada not only supports local jobs but eliminates the carbon footprint to ship bins half-way around the world. Same as above, if not a requirement, consider adding extra bid-points or a cost allowance to give North American made bins a competitive advantage.
- Durable, long-lasting bins: Some bins you could choose will last less than half as long as others. What may seem to be a lower cost up front turns out to be a greater expense long term when you’re having to replace them repeatedly. That same principle applies to the environmental footprint of your bins if over the long term you’re having to consume the resources to manufacture two bins instead of one. Outdoor bin should be built to last a minimum of 5 years, but not all do. Lower quality plastic bins, especially those in harsh climates can start to warp in that time or less. Good quality bins should last 10 years or longer.
- Costs: Good outdoor bins aren’t cheap. A solid one that will hold up over time can cost over $1,300 or more. You can find low-cost models, but you’ll find they don’t last more than a few years. I would be nervous buying any single-chamber bin for under $400 or even $500. For multi-stream bins, perhaps a little lower, $300 to $400 per chamber.
- Working from a tight budget? Often the number of recycling bins is driven by the imperative to match them with existing trash bins. But keep in mind this involves essentially doubling the overall collection capacity even though the objective is simply to divide the same of volume of waste into separate bins. That begs the question, do you need as many trash bins? The answer might be yes simply to maintain convenient placement for key locations. But redundant trash bins are often placed in close proximity simply to handle the volume. Eliminate these and you also reduce the number of recycling bins needed to match them. Depending on the design of the bin, these excess trash bins can often be cleaned, repainted and repurposed as recycling bins for a fraction the cost of buying them new.
- Two other thoughts to keep costs down: If the aesthetic standards of the setting allow it, old 55-gallon plastic drums from industrial usage can easily be adapted into bins. Cut the tops off with a sawzall and outfit them with special domed lids available through custodial supply catalogs, and you have a good durable bin for less than $100. With some searching it may be possible to find drums available for free through local material exchange programs like California’s CalMax. The final option of course is to develop a multi-year strategy buying bins and expanding your network incrementally over time. The drawback is that you will likely pay more in the long run than if you take advantage of volume pricing to purchase bins all at one time.
- Accessibility: Free standing outdoor waste and recycling receptacles are not technically covered by the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Accessible Canada Act (ACA), so the reference to “ADA compliant” some vendors advertise is a bit of a misnomer. They may incorporate general principles from the regulations, but they haven’t gone through an actual certification they’ve followed.
- That said, some specifications to consider in the spirit of ADA and ACA:
- Place the opening no higher than 43 inches (1065 mm) above the ground.
- Label or signage that can be seen from the side, not just facing up.
- Tactile labeling for visually impaired. This is an area that, frankly, not enough effort has been put into expanding accessibility. It can be very difficult to find bins or labels with Braille. And then again, should we expect people to be running their hands over face of a waste or recycling bin. Here’s one creative after-market solution from a Canadian company, tiles with tactile waste stream indicators that are placed on the ground in front of the appropriate bin.
- That said, some specifications to consider in the spirit of ADA and ACA:
Kick the Tires
I’ll close by offering a pro-tip: if you’re planning to buy a lot of a specific type of bin or set a standard model to guide for future purchases, get samples and try them out first. What looks nice from a catalog photo and spec list can’t overcome the experience of seeing it perform in your actual situation. Some vendors will consider sending a free sample if they know it could lead to a large order. But even if you have buy a sample, have your collection crew put it to use for a month to see if it meets their expectations before making a substantial investment you’ll have to live with for the next 15 + years.
Do you have insights or opinions about critical design specs and features for collection bins? I’m interested to get your thoughts to possibly add to this blog. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.