COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Waste Receptacles

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Excerpted from Public Space Amenities: A Guide to their Design and Management of in Downtowns, Neighborhood Commercial Districts, and Parks, published by Project for Public Spaces.

Finding a good waste receptacle for a downtown - simple as it may sound - is not an easy task. This is, in part, because of the diverse functions that waste receptacles serve on a street. A waste receptacle, of course, should be convenient to use and easy to maintain, but it also often accommodates a wide variety of other activities. People sit on waste receptacles, rest packages or briefcases on them, meet people next to them, and so on.

  • Is a waste receptacle needed?
  • Where should I put it?
  • How do I choose a waste receptacle?
  • What are the components of a good maintenance program?


One of the most common mistakes made in cities is placing waste receptacles where they are easy to empty, rather than where they are convenient for people to use. The result is often littered streets and empty waste receptacles. Because people usually will not go out of their way to find a waste receptacle, the challenge is to determine where one is needed.

To decide where a waste receptacle is needed, some simple on-site observations are necessary. The locations of existing street furniture and the type and location of ground-floor land uses (e.g., department stores, fast food, etc.) should be recorded on a large-scale map of the area. The extent, location, and type of litter should also be recorded. In addition, people such as the local sanitation workers should be interviewed about the problems they have observed. After doing these initial observations, it should be fairly clear where and how many waste receptacles are needed.


Good locations for waste receptacles are places where there are lots of people such as at busy intersections close to the crosswalks, next to take-out food shops or food vendors, at bus stops, in plazas, outside major building entrances (e.g., offices, department stores, residences), and near other street furniture such as benches or telephones.

The number of waste receptacles that are needed depends on the number of people who use an area, on the amount of litter generated by different land uses, and on the efficiency of the maintenance and sanitation program. On a downtown street, two to four waste receptacles per block is generally sufficient. One should be located at each end of the block next to the crosswalk, and one or two more in the middle of the block if there are benches or take-out food shops.


There are hundreds of different types of waste receptacles available. However, not many of them fulfill the requirements necessary to make them a good choice for a downtown street. In choosing a waste receptacle, there are several important qualities to look for.

The most important quality is that the waste receptacle looks like a place for depositing litter. All too often, in an attempt to make them blend into the environment, waste receptacles become unrecognizable as places to put rubbish. Although waste receptacles should be compatible with other street furniture and with the architectural character of the city, a waste receptacle should not ever hide its main function as a clearly recognizable place to deposit litter.

Equally important in the design of a good waste receptacle is that it is easy to use. Waste receptacles that have the following characteristics are best:

  • People should not have to touch the waste receptacle or push open a door in order to use it.
  • The opening of the waste receptacle should be large enough to accommodate litter. The exact size of the opening varies depending on the situation. For example, in parks, where people may deposit larger items, the hole will need to be larger. A rule of thumb is that the opening should be at least 10 inches wide, which is large enough to accommodate a folded newspaper or a take out food container. When the opening is too small, an item such as a newspaper can get jammed in it and litter will get strewn around the outside of the receptacle. In addition, the opening should not be more than 36 inches above the ground so that it can be used by the handicapped.
  • The size of the waste receptacle should be related both to how much it is expected to be used and how frequently it will be emptied. A well-managed public space will always have smaller receptacles that are emptied often rather than one large receptacle that is not frequently emptied. In most areas, a 30 to 50 gallon container is adequate.
  • A waste receptacle should also be sturdy, because of the many other activities such as sitting, leaning, etc., that may occur next to or on top of it.


The following maintenance factors are important to consider in selecting a waste receptacle:

  • To be durable, materials should be graffiti-, fire-, rust-, and stain-resistant. We have noted some of the characteristics of commonly used materials below: Enamel - graffiti- and stain-resistant, but some types chip easily. Wood and rough textured or porous surfaces - rust- and stain-resistant, but are subject to vandalism and difficult to clean. Aluminum - generally a good material, but in some areas, vandal-prone as scrap metal. Solvent-sensitive plastics - can be problematic, especially in parks, where barbecue lighter fluids can get put into the can. Galvanized steel - a highly durable material suitable for places where receptacles may get heavy abuse.
  • Receptacles should be easy for maintenance personnel to empty. The easiest receptacles to service are those that are emptied from the top. Receptacles that open on the side are difficult and time-consuming to empty, and are likely to break. Moving parts, which can break, rust, or be taken apart, should be avoided.
  • Waste receptacles should have liners to prevent litter from leaking or falling out of the container and on to the sidewalk. A metal or plastic liner with a disposable, heavy-duty inner plastic bag is best. Plastic liners are easier than metal liners to clean, but are sensitive to solvents such as lighter fluid. In parks, where barbecuing is common, a metal liner is best, and on city sidewalks, plastic is better. The inner, disposable bag should be securely attached with a rim to the top of the liner or container so that litter cannot fall into the liner. These bags should be temperature-, puncture-, tear-, and odor-resistant and able to withstand stress and impact when carried or thrown. They should also have a good method for closing.

The New York City Department of Sanitation has recently established specifications for their new standard garbage bag that is sturdier and more resistant to puncturing and tearing than most bags. The bag is a 30-gallon polyethylene bag, 1.5 mm. thick, and costs 9 cents. However, no waste receptacle, even if it is well-designed, convenient to use, easy to empty, and properly located, will work well if it is not emptied regularly, well maintained, and moved, if necessary, to a better location. Therefore, establishing a good maintenance program and monitoring its effectiveness is an essential part of a good waste receptacle program.

There are many examples of effective and innovative programs. In Denver, responsibility for maintaining and servicing waste receptacles and other amenities on the 16th Street Mall has been contracted out to a mall management organization.

New York initiated an "adopt-a-basket" program in which private sponsors such as stores and other businesses provide maintenance and servicing of the receptacles. The sponsors also agree to clean the surrounding sidewalk.

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