The Rise of 3-Dimensional Recycling Signs

3-Dimensional Recycling & Composting Signs at an event on the San Francisco State University Campus
3-Dimensional Recycling & Composting Signs at an event on the San Francisco State University Campus
By: Dinesh Thirupuvanam

Sorting waste can be a nightmare for small business owners.

Over the past 3 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of eco-minded small businesses in the food service space, and consistently these businesses struggle to get their customers to properly sort their waste. Many of the businesses I’ve worked with are in the San Francisco / Bay Area, and the issue is particularly relevant here where food service businesses must, by law, offer 3 waste disposal bins to customers: recycling, composting, and trash. The trouble is that customers are inevitably putting items into the wrong bins… compostable cups end up in the recycling, plastic forks in the compost, the list goes on.

This is bad for the environment for 2 reasons:

  1. Recycling & composting streams are contaminated. One plastic bag can contaminate an entire batch of compost. A few PLA cups can contaminate an entire PET recycling stream.
  2. Waste isn’t diverted from the landfill as it’s supposed to be.

This is also bad for business, because:

  1. Businesses can be fined for having contaminated recycling & composting bins, and
  2. Businesses incur additional costs as employees have to manually sort through bins or bags of recyclables & compostables.

Recently though I’ve seen businesses implement a pretty unique and innovative solution that helps customers get their recyclables in the recycling bin and their compostables in the composting bin –> 3 dimensional recycling signs.

It’s a pretty simple concept, but a very powerful one.

Organizations across the Bay Area have been taping or gluing their food packaging to blank recycling & composting signs to make sorting waste as clear and simple as possible for their customers.

I’ve seen these signs inside restaurants (although if customers are dining in, businesses should really be offering re-usables), at events, and at small take out stands. And while I don’t have a study or hard analysis to say that 3D signs are statistically more effective than 2D pictorial or text signs, I have seen a steady increase in the number of restaurants using these signs and many customers pausing to actually engage with the signs… as opposed to simply walking up to 3 bins and dumping all their waste in one of them.

3 Reasons Why 3D Recycling Signs are a Smart Idea

  1. It eliminates time required to dispose of waste – customers can very quickly map physical items on the poster to items in their hand and waste is sorted more quickly than with a 2 dimensional sign or a poster that simply has text.
  2. Recyclables or plastic packaging can often look similar to compostables (e.g., a compostable fork can easily be mistaken for a polystyrene fork). Showing customers an exact physical item (and which bin it goes in) eliminates this confusion.
  3. It’s more attractive and dare I say… fun – disposing of trash isn’t exactly something that most folks get excited about, but are customers more engaged with the process if they see an attractive 3D poster with items they can touch and feel – I think so.

So, have 3D recycling signs helped you sort your waste? Or do you run a businesses that has started using a 3D recycling sign? Tell us what you think and whether they’ve worked for you.


Dinesh Thirupuvanam runs an eco buying cooperative that helps businesses save up to 80% on eco supplies, including: compostable food packaging, recycled office supplies, and green cleaning products.

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2 responses

  1. I LOVE this idea. Genius!

    Seriously, I worked with a very large company that constantly struggled with providing signage that was appropriate for the variety of locations they had. Some locations were in kitchens which had different recycling streams than those in public areas or operations areas. It was an endless nightmare and always felt like we were losing sight of reality when we’d print up ANOTHER version for a minor tweak.

    I’ve since left the large company and started my own company, RecycleMatch. We are focused on really large waste streams from commercial and industrial customers, but even in our small office building we have volunteered to ‘manage’ the recycling. (ie, take it home with us weekly and put it on our curb). We don’t have the time or funds to mess with signs, but it drives us nutty when our neighbors don’t know their recycling etiquette. So, our hand made signage is a crude version of this. Who would have thought that this crude, out of necessity signage could be elevated to a more sophisticated level!

    @BrookeBF from @RecycleMatch

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