It’s Rarely People: A Story About Design & Communication

Posted in: Uncategorized Started by

It’s Rarely People: A Story About Design & Communication

Something as simple as recycling.  You may ask yourself, “Why don’t people care enough to do something so simple?”

And, you would likely be wrong.

In their ground-breaking book on changing human behavior, Chip and Dan Heath shared 3 surprises about change:

  1. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.
  2. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
  3. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

In 2011, I was working on a Green Task Force researching how we might even begin thinking about composting food waste in convenience stores across the Midwest.

We found a “bright spot” nearby.

A Maid Rite restaurant (franchise selling loose meat sandwiches) has supposedly implemented composting with a new hauling service, GreenRU.  The morning 4 of our teammates were available to tour, the owner wasn’t available.  But she let her employees know we were coming, and asked them to give us a walk-through.

Here is what we found.

Keep in mind, we had called ahead.  And, the hauler would not pick up the compost until later that afternoon.

As we pushed through the front door, the standard trash can was by the door.  Carved into the swinging door with a router was a recycling logo and the message, “We Compost.”

We asked if they had switched to 100% biodegradable tableware.  They had not.

The trash cans were chosen as the best place to promote their new kitchen composting program.

Problem #1: inconsistent messaging at the place of customer use.

Risk: Potential for “green-washing” complaints from knowledgeable customers.

They took us back into the kitchen.  5-gallon, bright-orange buckets were right next to the preparation table.  Any scraps were to be placed directly into the buckets.  When full, they were a great size to not be too heavy for a typical employee to take them out to the dumpster enclosure.  Above the bucket storage area was a colorful poster detailing what went into the compost bucket and what was not.

All good here!

We walked out back to see the back-end solution.

At the dumpster, we pulled the latch and swung open the doors.

6 bright-orange totes were snugly situated inside next to the 2 full-size dumpsters (trash and recycling).

Each tote was 96-gallons, tall and narrow.  They fit well, and were also roll-away so employees could move them if they needed.

“Wow, 6 totes,” we thought.  We opened one up.  Empty.

Another.  Empty.  ??

4 more.  No compost in any of the totes.

We would have assumed they got picked up early, but we knew the compost schedule from the owner.

We looked into the trash dumpster.  There were the food scraps.

Problem #2: At least some of the employees were separating the food scraps, but throwing them into the trash dumpster on the back-end.

Cost: The 6 totes seemed excessive anyway, but the cost of having six 96-gallon totes on-site was a huge cost investment with no return possible unless employees were trained to dump the scraps correctly.

We left with a couple valuable lessons.

  • Messaging and education to our customers needed to be well-designed
  • Space, kitchen storage, and signage in the kitchen for employees needed to be well-designed
  • Training needed to be thorough and dumpster storage needed to be right-sized

You may think this is simple.  And it is.

But simple doesn’t mean easy.

Consider this…

I just attended an open forum with over 30 professionals over lunch.  Peers sharing what was working and what was not working around sustainability for them.

Big manufacturing companies.  Regent universities.  Scientists.  Lab researchers.  Printers.  Service companies.

In a single conversation about recycling, dozens of issues were raised they had heard from their own people:

  • “Our signage is inconsistent with our program.”
  • “I don’t know if aluminum is allowed.  What about different plastics?”
  • “Our janitor doesn’t know anything about our recycling program.”
  • “The aluminum was dirty, so I put it in the trash.”
  • “I don’t know who is in charge.  Who is our point of contact with our hauler?”
  • “I found out we were separating, and we didn’t need to.  But leadership wanted to get people in the habit of sorting.”
  • “We are considering composting, but don’t know who to talk to.”
  • “Building new buildings is easy.  What about recycling with existing space in old buildings?”
  • “We have wet labs.  What can we recycle?”
  • “Instead of separate routes, back-hauling makes more sense, especially for thin-film plastic.”


And these are skilled professionals, working on programs for a few years at least.

Don’t believe the hype.

Recycling is never simple.  Maybe the concept of recycling is simple, but that doesn’t help anyone.

Any program to change human behavior needs to overcome the assumption of passionate individuals that the problem is “Other people don’t care,” or “People are lazy.”


People care.  They might be exhausted, but they aren’t lazy.

YOU have to design a program that fits their needs, makes sense, and communicates itself to them effectively so that they can participate in it without needing a PhD.

Believe in people.

Hone your skills in design and communication.

Include people in the process.  Ask for their feedback BEFORE you design the program and it’s signage.

This goes for basically every program you ever hope to create.

Now… go get em!



Adam Hammes is the executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a consultant, author, and motivational speaker. He specializes in helping businesses and sustainability professionals with environmental and social performance.

Check out Adam's new book on Amazon, Audible and Kindle: Sustainable Business in Iowa.

Like this content? Enter your email below for additional Chapter Cheat Sheets from Adam’s new book and more...

Leave a Reply