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A Picture Says 1,000 Words, Part 1

A sign on a recycling bin trying to convey information as you walk past. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words. But what is that picture saying? Is it conveying the information that you want people to understand? If all you want is 1,000 words, I know a slightly deranged guy that stands on the street corner talking to himself. He’s good for 1,000 words. Most people who walk by don’t understand what he is saying. Most people are not stopping to engage with him. In fact, most walk by quickly pretending not to notice him. Is that what you want for your posters and labels? The point is that this isn’t just about quantity. It’s about quality too. You need to choose your pictures and images carefully so that they say the words you want them to say and have the impact you want them to have.

Will people quickly recognize the images?

Regardless of whether you are using full color photos or black and white line art, you need to have images that people instantly recognize. I don’t care how artistic you think an image is. You don’t want people having to stop and stare at an image like it’s a Rorschach test, trying to figure out what they see in the inkblot. In most instances, people are going to be quickly walking past the label you have on your bin or the poster you have above it. Your images need to relay the information that you want them to relay just as quickly.

Images on labels and guidelines: matchmaker, make me a match

The ultimate goal of your label is to resolve the following issue: I have something in my hand to discard and I need to figure out which bin it goes in. It is one of the most important functions of recycling education. I don’t care how strong someone’s environmental ethos is or how much time you have spent fostering that ethos, if someone can’t figure out what bin something goes into, your recycling program will suffer. As I have said many times before, when someone gets to your recycling bins, you only have a few seconds (or fractions thereof) for them to make the correct choice and put something into the correct bin. Your images need to convey the correct information effectively and quickly before the moment passes.

Will people relate to the images on your labels and guidelines?

Gerber baby food jars may technically be recyclable in your campus bottle & can recycling program, but they‘re not the images I would use to inform college students what is recyclable on campus. You need images that people can relate to, images to correlate to the items that they are likely to have in their hand. Has your campus signed an exclusive pouring campus such that you will only serve Coke or only Pepsi products on campus? Do your guidelines and labels reflect that? If you are a Coke campus, it is unlikely that a student will have a Diet Pepsi in their hand (or vice versa) , so why would you have it on your label or in your guidelines?

Use products that students are likely to have or relate to. Need an aluminum can or PET plastic bottle? Use the predominant soda on campus. Need a glass bottle? Chances are your campus policies will prevent you from showing the beer or wine bottles that you may be seeing in your recycling bins, but you can find a similarly relatable shape in many micro-brewed natural soda bottles that are likely sold somewhere on or near campus. Need a steel can? Remember that most students are not cooking their own meals, so be sure to use images of pre-made foods like soups, which students may relate to for the occasional time they skip the DC and that staff can relate to as their lunch. Need an HPDE plastic bottle? Remember that most students are not drinking gallon jugs of milk. Use a much more relatable laundry detergent jug or look for one of the various brands of pre-packaged smoothies (Odwalla, etc.) that are sold on or near campus and use images of that.

And don’t be afraid to skip images if they aren’t that applicable. Your program may be able to accept plastic margarine or Cool Whip tubs, but unless someone has a special margarine fetish that I don’t want to know about, or unless an older faculty member is having an Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass flashback, chances are you are hardly going to see any margarine or cool whip tubs on campus. Wasting valuable space on your label or guidelines to things that people are not likely to have on campus makes your program that much less relatable and exacerbates the disconnect.

Consider customizing your guidelines using custom images

Have you considered doing special guidelines for different segments of the campus? You might be amazed by the impact of tweaking your guidelines with custom images that a subset of the campus can better relate to. Take for example Dining Services staff. They have bottles & cans that are very different than the rest of campus or your local municipal recycling guidelines. Do you have guidelines in those areas that they can relate to? For example, most dining staff do not buy olive oil in small glass bottles, they buy them in large steel cans. When you think pasta sauce, you may think the traditional glass jar that you buy in a grocery store. For dining services folks pasta sauce either means a large #10 can, or even a multi-gallon plastic bag liner inside a cardboard box.

I ran into this issue with dining staff at one of my schools over egg cartons. We had previously used guidelines adapted from a municipal recycling program that said that egg cartons were not recyclable. However, we could take aseptic gable-top milk and juice cartons. We keep getting feedback from dining staff about how confusing our guidelines were and we couldn’t figure out why. Turns out, they didn’t have the traditional egg cartons that most of us think of from the grocery store (those paper mache cartons that you buy a dozen eggs in). Most of the eggs that they were using were commercial premixed liquid egg products (think a commercial version of the “Egg Beaters” brand product) that came in a gable top aseptic carton that looked like a milk carton, and was similarly recyclable in our program. We designed our own custom guidelines for the dining staff with pictures of the specific products they were using and it cleared up all of that confusion.

Have you assessed the images that you are using on your recycling labels and in your recycling guidelines? Are they conveying the message that you want them to convey?

Written by

Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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