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Emily Carr University student, Andreas Eiken, and his team are designing a prototype for recycling bins that will be tested this summer by Multi Materials BC (MMBC).John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

People who spent a few hours at the Christmas Market in downtown Vancouver this year were faced with a challenging choice: not over which sausage, Christmas-tree bauble or German knick-knack to buy, but how to throw out their garbage.

The market, in an excess of recycling enthusiasm, had five colour-coded bins at every garbage station, from black for "landfill garbage" to a couple of greens for organics, red for refundables and blue for mixed containers – but nothing for paper.

It's exactly the kind of system likely to baffle well-meaning recyclers, as researchers at Vancouver universities are finding in their quest to help local governments and waste-management agencies figure out the ideal system for getting people to sort their garbage when out in public.

"Everybody wants to recycle, but they need help doing it. There's only so much information we can process. And more than three bins is just too many," said Andreas Eiken, a 28-year-old Emily Carr University of Art + Design master's student specializing in product design.

He is leading a team, supervised by faculty member Louise St. Pierre, designing a prototype for a set of recycling bins that appears to be one of three systems to be tested this summer by Multi Materials BC (MMBC).

MMBC is the non-profit industry organization handling most recycling in the province.

At the University of B.C., 26-year-old psychology master's student Alex DiGiacomo is working at the brain and attention research lab on a project to figure out what encourages people to recycle correctly.

As Metro Vancouver moves this January to a ban on food scraps in regular garbage and both MMBC and Metro push everyone to recycle more, that issue of how to get people to recycle effectively when they're away from home has become a hot topic.

The region's residents of single-family homes have shown they know how to recycle on familiar turf, with their blue bins and bags. The most recent statistics show they recycle 60 per cent of their paper and containers.

But in other places – parks, festivals, private institutions, streets – the systems are all different and frequently confusing. As a result, the recycling-accuracy rates are so low for some streetside bins that garbage collectors often just dump everything into the landfill because the contents are hopelessly mixed up with unrecyclable garbage.

That means thousands of tons of potentially recyclable stuff thrown away every year.

"If you have recycle bins that are contaminated, you've got a major problem to process it," said Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who is the head of Metro Vancouver's zero waste committee. "Most people would like to recycle but it has to be easy and done as well as possible."

That's where the research is coming in.

Ms. DiGiacomo's research is focusing on various factors that affect whether people do a better or worse job of recycling when they're in a public or semi-public place.

Her team has filmed people throwing things into recycle bins on various parts of the campus. They discovered that students and staff achieved an 80-per-cent success rate at getting the right garbage into the right bin at UBC's new Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, compared with 50 per cent elsewhere. That's not because they were all gung-ho environmentalists but because, it appears, it had to do with the building's beautiful design, clean look and clear signage.

"Our environment might be shaping our behaviour and we don't even know it," said Ms. DiGiacomo.

The lab's research also found that people believe they respond best to words. But tests monitoring how quickly they made decisions about where to put, say, a banana peel when given a choice of four bins showed that pictures and icons actually helped them process the information faster than words.

Over at the Emily Carr studio, where Mr. Eiken's team is designing the prototype set of three bins, that issue of speedy decision-making is also a factor.

Mr. Eiken read Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow, as well as the UBC research, to help him assess the best way to help people make quick decisions as they're approaching a row of public recycling bins.

"From 10 feet away, they start to process the information and make their decision," said Mr. Eiken, as he demonstrates someone walking toward a row of bins. "So we angled the lids so they can see the icons as they approach. There's one large word and one large icon on the top. Then, as they get closer, there are smaller icons, to confirm they're doing the right thing."

The most challenging product for consumers these days is the paper coffee cup. Since the paper is laminated, it actually doesn't go into the paper bin (only the cardboard sleeve does). The whole cup with plastic lid should go into the container bin.

The managing director of MMBC says all of that research is going to be tested in a pilot this summer, with three different systems tried out in Penticton, Richmond and the City of North Vancouver.

The key for MMBC is to find out what's effective, says Allen Langdon. "We don't want to make any large-scale investment in new containers until we know what works."

His organization is determined to find a system. MMBC has no interest in giving up and accepting mixed garbage, he said. But he acknowledges that's going to take work – not just on designing a system but on working with the public.

"The hard part is educating people, teaching them to put that whole coffee cup in the containers bin."

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