Irony patrol: Recycling bins

Microsoft has a large corporate recycling effort. Every office, every mail room, every kitchenette, every conference room has a recycling bin. The dining facilities earned Green Restaurant Certification, and there is a goal of making the cafeterias a zero-landfill facility by 2012. (Hey, that's this year!)

A few years ago, I found one room in my building that didn't have a recycling bin, and you'd think it'd be one of the rooms near the top of the list for needing one.

The room without a recycling bin was the copy machine room.

As a result, people were throwing their unwanted cover sheets and other paper waste into the regular garbage.

I decided to be somebody. I took a recycling bin from an unused office and moved it into the copy room.

Bonus recycling bin irony: For many years, each office had three recycling bins, each labeled for its intended contents: white paper, mixed paper, and aluminum cans. Improvements in automated sorting technology removed the need to separate these recyclables manually, and in 2008, all three recycling bins were replaced with a single recycle bin, which was labeled with the simple three-arrow recycling logo.

The irony is that Microsoft was going to toss all the old recycling bins into a landfill because they couldn't find anybody who wanted them.

Alert Microsoft employee Tom Roth found the right people in Building Facilities and got them to stop the trucks as they were about 100 feet from dumping 40,000 perfectly good plastic bins into a landfill. Tom's son Justin works in the recycling industry, and he used his contacts to get the word out, and soon requests for recycling bins were coming in from all over the state of Washington. It took three months, but they eventually found homes for all of the recycle bins.

Ironic disaster averted.

Comments (40)
  1. Brian_EE says:

    Good to see Microsoft leading the way on recycling. Heck, they even managed to recycle Bob when they pressed the XinXP CDs…/2008.07.windowsconfidential.aspx

  2. Robin Williams says:


  3. AC says:

    Even if nobody found a use for it, why not keep one of the three instead of replacing the three of them with a completely new bin?

  4. @AC, they needed new ones with a simple label so they don't have to keep explaining that you can put cans in the bin labeled "white paper" instead of throwing them in the trash.

  5. Gabe says:

    What I don't understand is why those recycling bins were not made out of a material that could be recycled in the first place.

    Did the manufacturer not realize that people might want to stop using them one day? Were they afraid that people might accidentally recycle the bins themselves rather than the material inside of them?

  6. Danny says:

    Well Ray? Don't let us in limbo now, it's almost 2013 so did they managed to achieve their goal regarding cafeterias?

    [You're writing as if I know the answer. -Raymond]
  7. @Brian

    At first I thought you were referring to how they were recycling the Microsoft Bob user interface for Windows 8.

  8. Brian_EE says:

    @AC, @j3anders: What they could have done is order large adhesive vinyl labels to place on 1/3 of the old bins indicating the new use.

    Regardless, in the end, all the old bins got distributed to those who could use them thereby 1) increasing corporate good will (not in the legal sense) and 2) helping to increase recycling in other communities.

  9. Mason Wheeler says:

    @Master Programmer: Huh? I thought they were recycling the Windows 3.1 interface for Windows 8… ;)

  10. Eric Lippert says:

    A friend of mine works for a power generator in Canada, who related to me that one of his coworkers got a bee in their bonnet about composting. After many months of effort they got a special compostable waste container in the lunch room. And then my friend worked late and discovered that the maintenance workers were dumping the compost trash can into the same dumpster as the regular trash. Why? Because the trash removal company has no compostable trash program, so what else were they supposed to do with it?

  11. @Mason Wheeler:  Not quite – go back more.  They're actually recycling the Windows 1.0 interface for Windows 8.  Overlapping windows were introduced in Windows 2.0.  Now they're apparently obsolete – what fun!  (Or at least, some camps in Microsoft seem to think they are obsolete along with the entire Windows desktop.)

  12. Krueger says:

    A few years ago, the company I work for sent out a 2 page newsletter about the company's commitment to recycling.  Ironically, rather than print it on a single sheet of paper (ie, front and back) they used 2 sheets of paper, one side only.  So their wonderful newsletter, extolling the virtues of recycling, used twice as much paper.

  13. Master(something else) says:

    They could have reduced carbon footprint by just keeping the bins on site to hold unsold copies of Windows 8.

  14. Dmitry says:

    I am being extremely politically incorrect here, but does that kind of effort really pay off? What is the cost of having some recyclable material dumped into a landfill vs. the lost opportunity cost? Would the world be better off if Raymond wrote a hundred more lines of code or fixed an extra bug?

  15. @Eric – you just hit upon the true irony of the "Recycling Industry".

    These days companies can choose recyclable materials and create recyclable products/packaging and then bath in the glow of praise for being so environmentally conscious.  Except that whether or not the recyclable components ever actually get recycled (or how efficiently or environmentally friendly that process is) is then the responsibility of someone else.  The way to fix this is to make manufacturers responsible for the entire lifecycle – to actually DO the recycling.

    Impossible?  Impractical?

    Once upon a time, drinks were shipped in glass bottles that could be re-used.  As an incentive to return the bottle, the consumer paid a deposit on the bottle which they got back when they returned the bottle (or in my case, which I got as spending money as a reward for taking my grandparens or aunts/uncles bottles back to the store when we visited).

    Nowadays the same products are shipped in plastic bottles which are recyclable – big round of applause all round for the clean, green packaging… thank you – but oops… many (most?) of them just end up in landfill because the consumer has no incentive to follow through on the recycling promise made on the packaging and there is no come back on the manufacturer when the consumer breaks that promise.

  16. cheong00 says:

    @Krueger: I think that would make sense if the newsletter would be posted to a notice board, right?

  17. cheong00 says:

    @Jolyon Smith: That's why I like StarXXXXs' policy of discount on "Bring your own cup" (you have to buy the cups at their store first, though) very much.

  18. Drak says:

    @Joylon: In the Netherlands we pay 25 cents 'statiegeld' per plastic bottle (1 litre and up I think, I don't buy smaller ones) and get that back when we return the bottle to the bottle-return at the store. Then you get a coupon which you can use as payment at said store for 25cts x number of bottles.

    Also, crates of beer work in this way to get the glass beer bottles back (and the crates themselves).

  19. Damien says:

    For those proposing to just re-purpose one of the 3 bins – I would assume that the same amount of materials will be recycled under the new regime as under the old. So unless you can also increase the capacity of one of those 3 bins to 3 times its original size, I don't think it will work.

  20. Gabe says:

    What's wrong with throwing all the plastic in a landfill? That's just carbon sequestration, right?

  21. JM says:

    I can't help but idly wonder how much fuel was expended to transport those 40,000 bins to their new owners. You could, of course, argue that those people would have gotten recycling bins anyway had they not been recycled, and even if not, the bins themselves will contribute to recycling, so it should be a net plus…

    More interesting is that nobody will actually do a calculation like that, of course, since intuitively, Recycling is Good.

  22. Kai Schätzl says:

    @Jolyon: As Drak mentions, that's why many European countries have a deposit on plastic bottles as well. I don't know what they do with all that plastic, but it gets at least collected and off the landscape this way. There's even people who make part of their living by "working" streets and backyard containers and looking for plastic bottles.

  23. Neil says:

    So, they managed to "recycle" the recycle bins in the end?

  24. 1:

    Why not just put new labels on the old bins. Reduce/Reuse/Recycle. In that order.


    @Eric Lippert: Several local authorities in the UK have used anti-terrorism law(!) to investigate people's waste disposal habits – putting too much stuff in the bin, putting non-recyclable waste in the recycling bins/putting recycling in the normal bin.

    Several local authorities in the UK have been found to dispose of the waste from both bins in the same landfill/incinerator (within the area, I don't mean you get waste from Dumfries & Galloway and waste from Cornwall going to the same tip, though given some LA's mismanagement I wouldn't bee too shocked)

    So, on one hand, the service users get investigated (and fined using information gathered) under RIPA for putting a newspaper in the household waste bin. The council then go and landfill it. </rant>

  25. Jonathan says:

    Israel has a 25-agorot (=~ 8cent) deposit on plastic and aluminium drink containers. You can return them in any shop who sells them and get your deposit back. Some homeless people use that as a revenue stream, but it's being more and more controlled by organized crime types.

    The deposit doesn't apply to large (>= 1 liter) bottle, for political reasons to embarrassing to post here.

  26. A dozen or so states in the US have bottle deposit laws. When you buy carbonated beverages in Michigan, you actually pay 10 cents extra per bottle or can over the list price. You can then bring the empty cans back for the deposit.

  27. No One says:

    Re: Bottle deposit — since the 5c or 10c bottle deposit is so low most people consider it as part of the cost, forcing communities to come up with new ways of getting citizens to recycle.  The method I was recently impressed by is that in a certain town (possibly more) in my state they don't pick up your trash unless you put out your recycling bin with stuff in it as well.

  28. Nick says:

    @cheong00: The coffee place you reference, their stores in my area will give you the discount for any cup you bring in, it doesn't have to be one they sold.

  29. Dmtry says:

    @JM: of course, it it makes you feel good, it must be good :-)

    And recycling paper is good for the environment, right?

    Never mind that if you throw the paper away, the carbon stays sequestered in the landfill. And the evil logging company (being the greedy capitalists they are) have no choice but to plant a new tree.

  30. @No One, According to wikipedia, Michigan (with the 10 cent deposit) has a 97% recycling rate from 1990-2008. The overall rate in the US is 33%, and the rate in states with container deposit laws is 70%. Roadside litter has been reduced by 30 to 64% in those states. Of course, more incentive to recycle is a good thing – even though people are recycling containers with deposits, it doesn't mean they're not throwing out their other recyclables.

  31. No One says:

    Just read up a bit on Wiki, j3anders — it's interesting.  From what I see around I wonder how they measure it since I see very few people ever at the redemption points around here.  So maybe it's just my perception that's warped.

  32. Tod says:

    in 2008, all three recycling bins were replaced with a single recycle bin, which was labeled with the simple three-arrow recycling logo.

    Please tell me they made them look like Windows' recycle bin. If not that's a huge lost opportunity.

    Hey, idea: sell Windows merchandising! Like recycle bins and, umm.. glass windows..

  33. @No One, my perception is probably off as well, living in Michigan, the state with the highest redemption rate. You often end up waiting for a redemption machine to open up because they're being heavily used, and anywhere with a dense enough population has people that dig through public trash bins for cans. I doubt the prices support it any more, but 10 or 15 years ago I knew people who would buy Faygo in Indiana for about 10 cents a can and then return the cans in Michigan. It was illegal, but got them free pop and if enough people did it, it would screw up the numbers.

  34. GregM says:

    In my town of about 18,000 people, my Boy Scout troop makes about $4k a year collecting deposit bottles, which is 80,000+ bottles and cans.  About 10% of that is glass, the rest is plastic and aluminum.  We are also not the only group in town that does it.  Now, if only the bottle deposit didn't only apply to carbonated beverages, we could get money for all the iced tea, lemonade, water, and wine containers that people give us that we end up throwing in the recycling bin at our collection spot.

  35. Drak says:

    @GregM: In Holland you pay the deposit on just about every plastic drink bottle, carbonated or not. What also happens is that there' charity collection boxes in the store where you can (if you're feeling charitable) leave the coupon you got from returning your bottles.

  36. @Jolyon

    We had this problem with milk.  As it turned out, the glass bottles weighed a lot and consumed fuel to transport to the customer and back to the factory (and valuable resources were spent cleaning them).  Also, round bottles did not pack milk efficiently: the plastic bottles and paper cartons are square, so now the extra weight is all milk, not glass and air gaps.  Add all this up, and the new cartons are more green even if they are sent to landfill (yes, someone did the math).

  37. Alex Cohn says:

    @Jonathan: you're not up-to-date: the price is ₪0.3 now!

  38. gungan37 says:

    Dang that is REALLY ironic!

  39. My local shopping mall (in Scotland) has several "recycling bins" with separate slots in the top for cans, paper etc. All the slots meet up inside to fill the same bag, though, making sorting rather pointless…

    I really like the automated sorting though. Hopefully, one day we will just have one bin again, then an automated sorting system to pick out recyclable metal, plastic, paper etc from a single waste stream. I wonder what it'll do with recycling bins mixed in!

  40. GregM says:

    Jas, we've had single-stream recycling in my town (in the U.S.) for several years now, so it does exist.

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