Designing a National Recycling System

6 min readSep 25, 2020


Heydays and Goods have worked with Loop and Avfall Norge to design a recycling system for use across Norway. Its explicit goal is to reduce confusion as to how and where things should be disposed, thereby increasing the rate of recycling. The EU has recently issued new waste management directives, containing increasingly ambitious goals.

From a visit to recycling facility ROAF

There are many challenges with material sustainability. One of them is that people aren’t good enough at recycling. A vast amount of material is wrongly disposed of, and as a consequence you can’t reuse or repurpose it. The potential life span of the material is cut short, and we have to keep extracting more from the planet to continue our endeavors. Recycling is a crucial part of the desirable circularity of materials.

It’s tempting to blame ignorance and laziness for the deficiency. What’s more productive, however, is to understand the flaws of the system and improve it. Simply put: if it’s difficult to recycle, we can’t expect people to do it.

The new labeling system we’ve built consists of more than 90 individual recycling labels, complete with color coding and label guidelines, which aim to make instructions clear and action effortless. We’ve also designed an app for that lets you search for different types of items and get instructions on what to do with them.

Looking back

Old recycling symbol sampels

The recycling symbols used previously were complex and lacked in legibility. Although they’re found on the majority of grocery store packaging, they performed exceedingly poorly in small sizes. More often than not they were printed smaller than the recommended 10 mm minimum width. The pictograms of different material types (plastic, metal, paper etc.) were also placed within a typical recycling triangle, which wasted a lot of valuable space. People found the symbols hard to find and decipher.

Sample old symbol on packaging

Another issue was that the symbols on packaging had no relationship to the ones found on government-issued recycling bags or on bins in the public sphere. You would encounter different representations of food waste and glass bottles in different places.

Sample of old symbol on packaging. Photo: Grønt Punkt

The colors for different materials weren’t coherent across the country, either. In Oslo, plastic is mostly associated with blue. In Trondheim, it’s purple. In Glåmdal, it’s green. Travelers, commuters and people living close to municipal borders had a clear disadvantage.

Building on solid ground

Overview of the Danish system

In Denmark, a new system had already been made and rolled out. It was decided that we would build upon this, tweaking it to fit the Norwegian language and specific needs.

Danish icon for plastic: Poor legibility of pictogram and text in small sizes

What the Danish system had going for it was threefold: simple, filled pictograms (as opposed to outlined ones); a robust color-coding for material types; and a distinct, square label. The system presented a major upgrade in these regards, but it lacked in legibility of text and pictograms in small sizes. While filled pictograms perform better on legibility tests than outlined ones (due to a more distinct silhouette), the small stroke thickness and spacing within each pictogram resulted in the loss of detail when scaled down. They looked great on signs, not so much on plastic bottles.

Also worth mentioning was a lack of sufficient contrast between the colored background and the pictogram on some of the symbols. A clear requirement for the new symbols was that they would be suitable to be used everywhere and by everyone. Catering to the needs of the visually impaired was essential, as well as the intended digital use.

Our modifications

Text labels outside the square scale better to different use cases

We realized that we had to redraw each symbol to achieve the desired legibility. It begun with moving the text from the inside of the symbol to the outside. This allowed us to enlarge the pictogram and make room for longer labels, all in one fell swoop.

Pictograms made primarily for a small scale also benefits the larger versions

Next, we made the new pictograms. Our hypothesis was that designing for the smallest size first would address the challenge directly, and that large sizes would also benefit from it.

A strict ruleset ensures coherence

We utilized a relatively strict ruleset. This brought a degree of clarity and coherence to the pictograms, as well as distinct silhouettes. They got thicker and sturdier, using a consistent minimum stroke width and spacing that was legible on the smallest of test sizes.

We also adjusted the three offending colors that lacked contrast. The new colors were tested against the WCAG contrast standard, in addition to human evaluation by a group at The Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted.

Two symbols together (glass and metal packaging) on a container

Labeling and signage subsequently got clear guidelines. One feature of the new system is the separation of material from recycling method. Previously there was one joint symbol for glass and metal, given that’s the way those material types are collected in Norway. However, seeing a symbol for two different material types on a glass bottle is somewhat misleading. It informs you about how you should dispose the item, but not specifically what it’s made of. Instead, we’ve opted for showing a single symbol on the product, and relevant symbols on the bins. That means two symbols on the glass and metal containers.

Guidelines for signage on recycle stations


New symbols on food packaging

The new system is currently being rolled out across Norway, and initial feedback is positive. An informal poll on (~900 respondents) show that 74% of prefer the new symbols, while only 4% prefer the old. This is unusually positive. People seldom react this way when a new graphical system comes along.

A selection of the new symbols

From our own tests, we note that the introduction of color in the symbols drastically increase their legibility. Respondents also consistently said that they prefer colored symbols on packaging, bins and signage over black and white ones.

The Sortere app

Initial reactions to the app by is also overwhelmingly positive. There seems to be a clear need for answers to everyday recycling questions that symbols alone can’t solve.

New symbols on various office bins

It’s yet too early to tell if it yields an increased rate of recycling, and given the disruptive nature of a new system it will probably take a few years before we can safely deduce the effect. Especially since many will have to relearn graphical patterns. But what we’ve heard so far does bode well.

We’re eager to be able to contribute to this important cause through our graphical efforts. The design of instructions and labels directly influence people’s ability to understand something and take action, and we believe that this long-sought national labeling system is a vital part of the path towards the circularity of produced goods.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to Heydays or Goods if you need help with a similar project!




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