Garbage Separation at the Source


Garbage containers in the home, workplace and public spaces


garbage separation, garbage can, recepticle, aluminum, glass, plastic, paper, organic wastes

Predecessor Patterns

. . . (none)

Problem Summary

If garbage is mixed in a single recepticle, the cost of recycling and composting its contents is prohibitive.


The typical garbage can is a single-unit recepticle into which all kinds of garbage are thrown, creating a sort of garbage stew. While this stew contains valuable raw materials, such as aluminum, glass, paper and nutrient-rich organic materials, separating those materials from the stew is expensive. The mixture of inorganic with organic materials produces a disgusting stinky mess that often contains vermin like maggots and disease-causing microbes. Besides being gross and unsanitary, garbage stew is not an economical resource for recycling enterprises. Consequently it's buried in land fills instead - out of sight, out of mind.

Obviously, the best way to eliminate the cost of separating garbage stew into its constituent raw materials is to prevent mixing it in the first place. But as long as there is only a single container within convenient walking distance, people will prefer to make a stew of their garbage. The solution, therefore, is the antithesis of this arrangement, namely to exercise garbage separation at the source, encouraged by a small set of separate containers for different materials.

This pattern was first conceived in the Ecopatterns class at Cal Arts in 1973. The inspirational model was the old-fashioned milk man who would leave full milk bottles and take away the empty ones to be reused. In this scenario, the garbage man turned recycling person would leave an empty modular container with separate bins for different materials, and take away a full one. At the city dump turned recycling center, the already separated inorganic materials would be sold to industries to help finance the refuse system, and the organic materials would be added to a community compost heap.

Today many responsible businesses provide separate containers and the more enlightened communities provide color-coded bins for aluminum cans, glass and paper. Increasingly we see separate containers for glass and aluminum at public events. A special problem remains with plastics, however, because there are so many different types that further need to be separated to make recycling them economically sound.

Other special problems are presented by toxic and noxious wastes, from discarded batteries and smoke alarms, automotive chemicals, cleaning fluids, etc., on a home scale, to nuclear and other dangerous wastes on an industrial scale. While recycling these materials demand other special solutions, preventing their mixture by separating at the source is clearly a start. For the home and office we recommend a special container for these materials, backed up by special systems for their disposal and reuse at a community level.

Solution Summary


Wherever possible, encourage garbage separation at the source by providing separate containers for the major types of garbage:

  1. metals (with sub-containers for steel "tin cans" and aluminum)
  2. paper
  3. glass (with sub-containers for clear and colored glass)
  4. plastics (with sub-containers for different types)
  5. toxic materials
  6. organic wastes

Periodically deliver the inorganic materials to their respective recycling centers, and compost the organic wastes.

Successor Patterns

Coded Plastic Materials help people separate the many different types of plastic. Recycling organic wastes has special problems that could be solved with a Community Compost Heap. If a community compost heap isn't available, see Home Compost for how to make compost yourself - it's easier than you might think. For making sewage into compost, see Compost, pattern 178 in A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, et al, Oxford University Press, 1977. . . .


  1. This pattern was first conceived in the Ecopatterns course taught by Ken Asplund and Gary Swift at the School of Design, California Institute of the Arts, 1973. Special thanks to Ken and the students in that class who helped inspire it.
  2. Recycling Facts (MIT).
  3. Factoids About Individual Recyclables (University of Virginia).


Gary Swift, April 19, 1973
Web version August 28, 1996
Remove broken links, 1/4/00.
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