California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)

"Innovations" Case Studies: Mini Trash Bins

General Information

Program Characteristics

Mini trash bin programs are a unique way to reduce waste. Taking away people’s trash cans is indeed a novel concept. Those who have implemented such programs are attracted to them because the programs are thought provoking. If throwing away trash is super easy, people will continue to do it. If it is a little inconvenient, people will think more about what they are throwing away and about what could be recycled.

Programs often face skepticism at first, but this dissipates as employees realize the program works. They accept its simplicity and buy into the benefits of reducing waste and costs.

The main elements of a typical mini trash bin program are:

  • Support of top management.
  • Cooperation and support from custodial workers and management.
  • Establishment of a team leader or recycling coordinator at each building who serves as the point person for the program (this is usually a volunteer).
  • Replacing previous trash and recycling equipment with new bins.
  • Face-to-face outreach training for employees and management.
  • Ongoing communications with employees.
  • Assessing recycling and trash generation levels before and after program implementation.
  • Renegotiating recycling, trash, and custodial contracts if applicable and possible (to facilitate implementation of new system and reduce costs).
  • Monitoring and feedback to employees.

The mini trash can acts as a “yield” sign, allowing office workers to pause and think about what they throw away. Because discarding items is no longer easy, employees must pay attention to what they put in their mini trash cans.

Employees accept greater responsibility for their discards-both discards they produce and those they choose not to produce. For example, instead of letting one soda or one disposable coffee cup consume most of the space in a mini trash can, employees may decide to put the can in a recycling bin or use a reusable coffee mug.

There are three basic variations on the mini trash bin program:

  • Custodial staff are responsible for emptying mini trash bins and recycling bins at each employee’s work station.
  • Employees are responsible for emptying their mini trash bin but not their recyclables, which custodial staff handle.
  • Employees are fully responsible for emptying their mini trash bins and taking their recyclables to central collection points.

The latter two scenarios are more common. Making employees responsible for their trash is a key to program success.


Picture below shows employee's desk with circular desktop paper recycling container. Behind it, the mini trash bin. (Ontario's Max Green program)

Picture of employee's desk with circular desktop paper recycling container. Behind it is the mini trash bin.

Different programs use different collection containers. Some invest very little by purchasing mini trash bins for every employee. Employees may use their old trash cans for recyclable paper. People may then bring cans and bottles to central collection containers in kitchen areas or other common locations.

In some programs, individual recycling containers are cardboard containers placed on the desktop or on the floor. Other programs use old trash cans with new recycling labels. In still other programs, employees use large recycling bins with small saddlebag bins for trash.

Desktop paper recycling containers tend to be big enough to hold a lot of paper but small enough so that they do not get too heavy for employees to easily empty into the central collection bins. By getting paper receptacles off the floor, desktop paper recycling containers help break the tendency many employees have to throw away their paper in trash receptacles.

An advantage to durable containers is that they are not easily damaged and give the impression that they and the recycling program will be around for a long time.

For these reasons, Ontario’s Max Green program uses circular desktop containers with the program’s name and a clearly visible list of acceptable materials for recycling.

Mini trash bins come in different shapes and sizes as well. For example:

  • In San Jose, California, office workers use a 3.5-quart mini can with a pop-off lid and a handle.
  • At Max Green buildings, employees use a small desktop container with a pop-off lid that stands about 5½ inches tall and is 5 inches in diameter at the top.
  • In Kalamazoo County, Mich., employees at government offices traded their traditional trash cans for a Rubbermaid 28-quart recycling basket and a small attachable “saddle basket” for non-food waste such as plastic windows and other miscellaneous nonrecyclable items.

Some programs make liner bags available for the mini trash bin programs. Some employees will like to use these because they can drop their trash into the central trash container on their way out the door. (Costs of liners are typically more than offset by the avoided cost of conventional trash bags needed under previous systems for each employee’s conventional trash bin.)

For central collection containers, the Max Green program uses metal. Metal containers convey to employees that the program is permanent. They are fireproof and almost indestructible. In addition, they can be painted in designated colors with an organization’s logo or other organization-specific design. This gives employees a sense of ownership of the program. It becomes the employees’ program, not the recycler’s.

When choosing equipment, durability, aesthetics, and ease of use are important considerations. Local governments may have grants available for purchasing recycling-related equipment. State agencies may get help in buying recycling containers from the CalRecycle Project Recycle program.

Many recycling coordinators emphasize the importance of equipment uniformity. It gives the program a professional appearance. It also makes the program immediately recognizable to both employees and visitors.

The recycling coordinator at Northern Illinois University emphasizes color-coding containers as a way to simplify the program for users. For example, both desktop mini trash containers and central trash collection bins are black. Deskside paper containers and central paper recycling bins are all blue. She stresses the importance of uniformity of size and shape for central collection bins.

Although having new equipment to go with the new program may be best, existing equipment may be used if costs are prohibitive. In Porter County, Ind., program managers did not want to buy lots of new equipment, so they used what they had. Employees use old trash cans for paper recycling. Making the central paper collection containers the same color as the cans can emphasize that these cans are now for recycling rather than trash.

In the City of Oakland buildings, old garbage bins became the container for collecting mixed paper. City staff members gave out “mixed paper” stickers for the old garbage bins. Employees use a hanging basket for their white paper.

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Paper-To Sort or Not

The jury is still out on whether to sort office paper or collect it all together. Allowing employees to mix paper together may increase participation and overall fiber recovery, but high-grading may improve marketability and value.

Most city employees in San Jose, California, sort white paper and then collect all other paper together as mixed paper. This gives the city’s contractor the best price for the high-grade paper, but it still provides employees with a convenient recycling program. Only two paper sorts are required. In very small facilities, all recyclable paper is combined. In some of the largest buildings, newsprint and computer paper are separated. The City of Oakland also does a two-paper sort (one for white paper and one for mixed paper).

Picture below shows an employee workstation in San Jose with paper recycling containers (left of chair) and mini trash bin (right of chair) under desk.

Picture shows employee workstation in San Jose with recycling containers and mini trash bin visible under desk.

In both San Jose and Oakland, corrugated cardboard is accepted too. It must be broken down and stacked near the central recycling stations for custodians to pick up.

One important aspect of Max Green is recovering all types of paper grades together. This, they believe, maximizes diversion. Max Green representatives recommend that newspaper be collected separately from mixed office paper, because this increases the grade of office paper sent to recycling. This also allows newspaper to be marketed as a separate material.

What Work Settings Can Use the
Mini Trash Bin?

Mini trash bin programs are best suited to areas where individuals are able to take responsibility for emptying the contents of their bins into central collection containers. The City of San Jose has found that program success has been limited in settings where desks are shared by various shift workers because no one person has responsibility for emptying the mini can and deskside recycling containers.

The city has successfully used centralized collection containers in place of deskside setups in areas such as some police operations where employees do not have distinct cubicles but share a common desk area.

Introducing the Program

Outreach and education are important for any recycling program. This is especially true for mini trash bin programs. An example of this is in the City of San Jose, where at the beginning of a program in each building, environmental services staff performed the following tasks:

  • Made presentations to upper management to secure their cooperation and support.
  • Developed a contact at each site (the contact is the liaison for the program between environmental services staff and building employees).
  • Set up and made presentations to all building employees (through the building contacts).
  • When the manager of the mini trash can program gives presentations introducing the program, she provides participants with an information packet. The packet contains a memo from top city managers informing people that the program will begin soon and that management supports it. The city phased in the program one building at a time.

In Porter County, Ind., CalRecycle of Commissioners and the Porter County Solid Waste Management District each issued a one-page memo explaining the program to their employees. The memo in part read:


  • Please use it to dispose of used tissues, paper towels, food items, muffin wrappers, wax paper, fruit peelings, etc. Your current waste basket will become the recycling container for office paper.
  • When your garbage can is full, take it to the nearest central waste area (there will be one large container centrally located in all kitchen areas). Regular sized waste cans and recycling containers will still be located in the lunchroom.
  • All other recyclable materials i.e. cans, glass bottles, plastics #1 and #2 must be placed in the appropriate recycling containers in your area.
  • We know that a lot of people are very emotionally attached to their garbage cans and we hope to make this transition as painless as possible. (end memo)

In addition to the memo, solid waste management district staff talked directly to employees, going office to office and explaining the program specifics to each office manager.

The City of Oakland began its program in June 1998 in two buildings (one new and one a historic building that underwent earthquake retroffiting) adjacent to city hall and the city center plaza. The two buildings have approximately 1,100 employees. After these buildings were onboard and the city worked out the program bugs, it targeted the six other remaining large city facilities (including the Oakland Museum and municipal services center).

The last building, the city’s police administration building, joined the program in February 2000. Approximately 2,700 employees now have mini bins. When beginning the program, city staff gives each office/work station a mini trash bin, a hanging basket for white paper, and a mixed paper sticker (for their old garbage bin). They also receive an explanatory memo from the city manager with illustrated instructions on the reverse side.

Staff members from the Ontario Max Green program recommend forming an implementation team. Dedicating part of staff’s time to program implementation will help ensure that all the building’s areas are covered. Experts at Max Green recommend taking the following actions:

  • Senior management should appoint a greening coordinator to become the program mentor.
  • Form an implementation team that consists of the greening coordinator, custodial managers, the building manager, the realty company if the building is leased, and a communications officer.
  • Allow the implementation team to assume the role of the green team in smaller buildings. Wherever possible, a green team-consisting of divisional or floor volunteer representatives-educates colleagues and helps the coordinator to ascertain equipment needs, circulate communications, etc.

All the above positions are temporary. After the program launch date, the green team should continue to monitor the program for about three months and report any problems to the coordinator. The coordinator continues to keep senior management up-to-date on the program.

After the first three months, Max Green experience shows that the program runs itself, with meetings between the coordinator and the implementation team held every six months. Green teams usually come forward with ideas to broaden the scope into reduction and reuse practices.

Involving custodial workers and custodial management from the beginning of the program is essential. Any change in trash and recycling affects custodial work. The custodians need to know what is going on, what needs to be done in order for the program to succeed, and why the program should succeed.

Custodial workers collect recyclables and trash from central containers and bring these to specified areas. If this important job is not done correctly, the entire program won’t be successful. Custodial workers need to understand and be on board in order to ensure the program runs smoothly. And support from the person in charge of custodial workers is essential. Custodians should not be the last people to be involved; they should be among the first. They need to know the program will not be extra work for them.

Max Green program managers recommend having a kick-off event at the start of a program. Make it public. Announce it via email. Consider offering a prize to the division or floor that has reduced trash the most after the first month. If you have already measured trash and recycling weights for each floor, documenting changes will be easy.

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Last updated: October 2, 2002
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