Design Tips for Recycling and Waste Disposal

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces about 4.4 pounds of garbage a day, or a total of 29 pounds per week and 1,600 pounds a year. Statistics always have more impact when given a frame of reference, so consider this: With the garbage produced in America alone, you could form a line of filled-up garbage trucks and reach the moon.

With our impact on the environment making daily headlines, there’s a demand for change in the way we reduce, recycle and dispose of our waste. Not all, but a good part of it is generated in or near the kitchen, so there’s an opportunity for kitchen designers to better address recycling and waste disposal. The results could not only improve the function of the kitchen, but also increase the recycling and cut down on that trail of garbage we’ve been leaving.

As I learn more about recycling, I see a genuine opportunity for designers to develop the systems that will support positive habits, so here are a few ideas to whet your appetite for the recycling end of this equation.


First, we can be sure that recycling is a significant part of our conversations with the client as we begin a job. As always, we can be part listener and part educator as we share information on the client’s needs and concerns regarding recycling.

A critical piece of this puzzle will have to do with local requirements and opportunities for recycling. If our client is unfamiliar with local recycling options, we should make ourselves a source of that information or know where they can find it. One great source on what and how to recycle by zip code is This is important not just to learn the requirements, but also because items that can be recycled vary from place to place depending on the local need.

There are several other points to discuss. Who will be the main recycler? If it’s the 10 year old, we need to plan a space that is convenient to him or her, and perhaps not in the mainstream of everyone else.

What will be recycled and where will it be collected? How often do the recycled collections get picked up or dropped off? What needs to be near or in the kitchen and what can be elsewhere? Is there an interest in composting, and what are the client’s concerns about it?

Thorough recycling becomes much less complicated and more likely to succeed if we plan carefully for a system that fits the clients’ living patterns.


Having established local recycling processes, we’ll know how many bins will be needed, and of those, how many in the kitchen proper. Because local systems may change with time, it’s good to design in some flexibility.

One common configuration is two bins, one for garbage and one for recycled items. This works in those areas where recycled items are sorted by the collection agent. A common use of a third bin for returnable bottles and cans can often be placed outside the central work area, especially if there is a second refrigerator or beverage zone in the kitchen.

In addition, a compost bin of some sort will also complete basic needs in the kitchen. Because both contents and packaging frequently need to be washed before use or recycling, locating the recycle center of the kitchen near a sink is probably the best option.

Now comes the critical measure of priorities. Perhaps some of the items traditionally stored in this zone can still be convenient if placed outside the immediate area, providing the space required for waste and recycling. Few if any clients argue with the need for a waste container unit in the clean-up zone, so we may simply be looking at more specific allotment of space and accessorization of our cabinetry to support better recycling habits.

Our accessory manufacturers have been paying attention, so we have a variety of options to suit this purpose. In addition to trash compactors, options to help reduce the space requirements for recycling include new appliances on the market that organize and crush or compact their contents (see,

Composting probably brings the greatest reluctance on the part of clients unfamiliar with contemporary options. Every retailer from Target to Williams-Sonoma has compost bins or buckets with sealed lids and charcoal filters built in to eliminate odors and pests. These are typically countertop or undersink containers that are emptied regularly to a compost collection point outside the home for further processing. In addition, an appliance has entered the market that processes the compost in a sealed container, eliminating odors and providing a fully processed end product that can be placed directly into the garden (, available in designer colors and small enough to be built into a 15"-wide base cabinet. Interest is growing in this aspect of recycling, with municipal pick-up of compost materials available in some urban areas and in much of Europe.


The mud room, family foyer or laundry may be options for back-up recycling space. Because items may need to be disassembled before recycling, a work surface is a good part of this space, as is a sink, again for rinsing out containers.

If additional sorting is required, this may be the space where separate bins are located. When there is a wall in common with the kitchen, a chute can be installed that allows the cook to deposit these items directly into the appropriate bin ( This is also where the supplies needed to prepare recyclables such as twine, scissors, bags and ties can be stored.

Beyond the obvious metal, glass, paper, cardboard and plastic, there are often programs for household items no longer needed or used – everything from appliances or clothing to cars. While we don’t need a recycle bin for automobiles, in a given household, a bin in the laundry area for clothes or for hangers to be recycled, or a cabinet in the mud room for other household items may be a desired addition.

Since paper waste makes for about 35 percent of the total material filling up landfills, it is well worth the effort to plan a space for collecting news and other paper. This can likely be away from the kitchen proper, but near the entrance where mail is brought in, probably the mud room or family foyer. Separate from paper, cardboard and plastic packaging will need a collection spot, again, away from the kitchen, but near the pick-up spot or the garage if these items are to be taken to a drop-off spot.

Although, as a country, our recycling has improved and the amount of waste we generate per person has declined, there is still so much room for improvement. Perhaps, if we as designers make it easier, cleaner and more convenient, better recycling habits will become the norm, and our waste will be decreased voluntarily before mandated programs become standard.

Hopefully, this introductory look at how we design the system for recycling in the home will contribute to that progress.