Ecosystems thinking for design in government and non-profit sectors — in action (2/2)

A tiled collage of 9 black and white images showing every-day life from different angles and perspectives.
Images from Unsplash; Sean Benesh, Charles Deluvio, Geran de Klerk, Dave Michuda, Artem Maltsev, Laura Connelly, Tony Sebastian, Jessica Delp, Keisuke Higashio.

This article is Part 2/2 series. Part 1 covers the basics of ecosystems thinking. Part 2 shows what it could look like in action using the context of recycling:

  1. Recycling ecosystem — Kate’s story
  • Kate’s journey at a glance
  • What Kate does
  • What Kate did not know
  • What Kate did not do
  • What’s the point of the story

2. What can we learn from the recycling ecosystem story through mapping

  • Actors map
  • Actors map seen from a different perspective
  • Information flow map
  • Closer-look-at-actors map
  • Causal loop diagrams

3. Now what?

This is an exploratory simulation based on a real story shared with me. It is not meant as a critique of specific organizations, but rather as a learning inquiry.

I am not an expert in systems thinking or ecosystem mapping, but through my recent interest in these methodologies I realized I’ve been unknowingly using systemic approaches and ways of thinking in my work for a long time.

I see the application of systems thinking to public sector problems as an essential skill for anyone involved in design of services.

Recycling ecosystem — Kate’s story

Kate lives in a small apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada. She has good intentions, but she is still confused about many recycling rules. Kate wants to recycle a glass food storage container for which she no longer has a need. She is confident she can recycle the glass container, but unsure about the lid. She looks at the lid and sees #4 in a triangle. So she decides to check if she can recycle this type of plastic.

Kate’s journey at a glance

Journey map of Kate’s recycling experience.
A preview of Kate’s recycling journey at a glance in 13 steps.

1 — The journey begins with Kate wondering if she can recycle the lid of her glass food storage container

2 — Kate Googles “recycle #4 plastic bc”

3 — Kate ends up on Recycle BC website where she searches for “4”, “plastic”, “glass”. Doesn’t find the answer

4 — Kate looks through answer snippets on Google and then searches for “recycle #4 bc”

5 — Kate ends up on “Packaging codes: An explanation page” from Recycle BC. Doesn’t find the answer

6 — Kate looks through the list of materials accepted for recycling on Recycle BC. Doesn’t find the answer

7 — Kate ends up on Recycling Council of BC page and she finds Plastic Code 4 in its Recyclepedia. This still does not answer her question

8 — Kate Googles “vancouver recycling”

9 — She looks for recycling information on the City of Vancouver recycling page, which directs her back to Recycle BC

10 — Kate leaves Recycle BC, as she ended up there too many times and it was not helpful

11 — Kate Googles “recycle #4”

12 — Kate looks at plastic codes in an article from Good Housekeeping. It is helpful, but may not be relevant

13 — Kate is tired and confused; she puts the container and its lid into the recycling bin.

If you are curious to better understand the journey and what it might mean for a public sector organization, read on.

What Kate does

Kate Googles “recycle #4 plastic bc”.

First search result looks authoritative — Recycle BC.

She is at the homepage with the search bar populated with a statement — “What can I recycle…”.

Screenshot of RecycleBC homepage.
Screenshot of RecycleBC homepage.

Kate wishes she could ask “Can I recycle x?” instead. She types in “4” hoping for relevant suggestions to popup. Nothing happens. She types in “plastic”, none of the results seem relevant for a plastic lid. She types in “glass” none of the results relate to a glass container.

Screenshots of Kate’s search results for ‘plastic’ and ‘glass’ on Recycle BC.

Not finding what she is looking for she clicks around. Navigating to “Can I recycle this?” -> Glass. Since she is certain that she can recycle her glass container, she skims the page for any information on lids, but can’t find anything.

Frustrated, she looks at Google answer snippets, most seem to talk about plastic bags, not relevant.

Kate changes search terms to “recycle #4 bc”, the second result is “Packaging Codes: An Explanation” from Recycle BC. She follows the link.

Here she finds the following information

If you take a close look at the bottom of a plastic bottle or jar, you might notice a symbol consisting of a number surrounded by a triangle or three arrows in the shape of a triangle — this is called the resin identification code. Many people think that this symbol means that the package can be recycled. In fact, according to the Canadian Plastic Industry Association, “the code is intended solely to identify resin content”. A resin identification code does not mean the package can be recycled.

Recycle BC discourages residents from using the codes to identify whether a package is accepted in our packaging and printed paper recycling program. Instead, we encourage you to refer to the list of accepted materials.

Kate is surprised; she always believed there was a correlation between the numbers and the ability to recycle; oh well, live and learn. She wonders why Recycle BC did not include plastic codes in their search. This would be an ideal place to tell people that these numbers are meaningless and then direct them to relevant resources.

This page also seems dated (November 27, 2014) and the link to the Canadian Plastic Industry Association is broken too! Karen wonders if this information is still relevant. The list of accepted materials that was updated in 2018 is not helpful to her either. Kate is not sure if her container fits into the description of the accepted “Plastic Tubs and Lids” (even though the image seems to resemble hers).

Image of a page from the PDF about accepted recycling items including a container with a lid representing plastic tubs.
Image of a page from the PDF about accepted recycling items including a container with a lid representing plastic tubs.

The tiny text at the bottom of the PDF mentions that some items are recycled outside of Recycle BC’s program. Even though Kate does not really understand what that means for her ability to recycle something, she looks up the Recycling Council of BC, mentioned further.

Screenshot of the homepage of the Recycling Council of BC.
Screenshot of the homepage of the Recycling Council of BC.
Homepage of Recycling Council of BC, promoting their Recyclepedia App.

Here she finds a Recyclepedia tool, where she quickly finds Plastic Code 4. Success!

Screenshot of Recyclepedia search results for Plastic Code 4.
Screenshot of Recyclepedia search results for Plastic Code 4.

Oh wait… having read through the page, Kate is still not sure if she can recycle it. She thinks:

Thank you for telling me that this plastic can be recycled into plastic lumber and compost bins, but can I recycle it???!!!

She wonders:

  • Why are ‘grocery bags’ the only example provided?
  • What does curbside collection mean and how does that translate into condo-speak?

Kate decide to search for “vancouver recycling” and finds the City of Vancouver Waste and Recycling page. She navigates to resources for Apartments, condos, and townhomes. This section simply directs her back to Recycle BC.

Screenshot of the City of Vancouver Recycling page for Apartments, condos, and townhomes.
Screenshot of the City of Vancouver Recycling page for Apartments, condos, and townhomes.

Running out of patience, but determined to get to the bottom of her confusion, Kate changes search terms once more to “recycle #4”.

Looks at the featured content including various magazine articles that have easy-to-understand and scannable graphics, like the one from Good Housekeeping article, but she thinks this information might not apply to her area’s recycling, since they are not from Canadian sources.

Kate is tired and confused. It is possible that her container lid can be recycled, but she seems to have no way of finding out if and how. She spent over 30 minutes trying to figure this out.

She gives up and puts the plastic lid into recycling, next to the glass food storage container.

What Kate did not know

Those of you who have been screaming at the screen telling Kate what a fool she is and that she’s got it all wrong, I understand, it is hard, let’s all have some empathy.

If only Kate had found this handy Recycle BC blog entry What’s included: Product vs. Packaging? posted on January 17, 2019. It explained that Recycle BC only recycles packaging. Kate would have had an existential crisis realizing that her glass container (with lid included) could not be recycled!

Do you often wonder why you can include plastic yogurt containers in your recycling bin, but not plastic toys? Or why you can include flyers and magazines, but not books? […] It can be a little complicated, so we’re going to provide an easy way to determine if material (that is recyclable) can be included in our system. If it’s recyclable and its packaging or paper it’s in. If it’s a product, meaning it was the item you purchased (not the packaging around the item you purchased) it’s out. […] please look for donation options in your community.

Screenshot from Recycle BC page about what can be recycled and what can’t.
Screenshot from Recycle BC page about what can be recycled and what can’t.
You can’t recycle products, but you can recycle some of their packaging!

But honestly, how many enthusiasts read local recycling news and blogs?

What Kate did not do

Kate did not dig through the ‘News and Blog’ archives of Recylce BC to find the blog post which explained that Recycle BC only recycles packaging of products and not the products themselves!

Kate also did not notice the City of Vancouver Waste Wizard when she landed on its recycling page from her desktop browser.

Side-by-side screenshots of a desktop and mobile view of the City of Vancouver recycling pages. The desktop view de-prioritizes the Waste Wizard and makes it easy to continue scanning in F pattern trough the links on the lefts side and those below, for the information that seems most relevant to the user’s intent.

If she did notice this city’s Waste Wizard, she would have found helpful information about recycling #4 plastic containers. From the search result related to the # of plastic, she would be directed to look by the type of container. Her best find would be what to do with ‘Tupperware’ (with nothing useful coming up for ‘plastic’ or ‘glass’). It states:

Tupperware and other types of reusable containers are not accepted in the City’s recycling programs.

Screenshots from the City’s Waste Wizard. First screenshot explains that plastic resin codes are not used as criteria for recycling. Second screenshot shows that Tupperware is not recycled in the City.

She also did not scroll down to images for ‘vancouver recycling’ hoping to find something more helpful. If she did, she may have stumbled across the a Vancouver Sun article about recycling coffee pods with an image that might help her.

Results of image search relating to ‘vancouver recycling’.

Although, she might have still been wondering about whether her container falls under ‘dishes or cookware’. Plus this guide was meant for single family homes and not for apartments where the recycling boxes look different.

Screenshot of a residential recycling brochure for the City of Vancouver.
The Grey Box section of the City of Vancouver Recycling brochure does say that dishes and cookware are not accepted in the glass box.

Kate also did not visit BC Government’s website, BC recycles, Metro Vancouver Recycles, and Recycling Depot website. To be fair, those would have only confused her further. The sheer number of resources on the topic are overwhelming and lack consistency of experience.

Screenshots of 5 websites that provide important recycling information for someone in the City of Vancouver: Recycle BC, City of Vancouver Recycling, Recycling Council of British Columbia, BC recycles, Metro Vancouver Recycles.

What’s the point of the story

Recycling, like many government and non-profit services, is not that simple. Getting people to spend time understanding and doing recycling properly is an ongoing challenge for many organizations.

Different countries, regions, and cities do it differently, adding to the complexity. It is also the type of thing that needs lots of motivation to be done voluntarily and if behavioral insights teach us anything about how to affect compliance in solving environmental challenges, then simplification and clarity of information are essential to combat the inertia of the status-quo bias.

I think we can all agree that the recycling experience that Kate had (and a number of possible experiences she could have had, if she actually consulted and examined all the different sources) was anything but simple. This quote from the local article Where do our plastics go? And how do we get rid of them? sums it up effectively:

The Recycling Council of British Columbia has a website where you can input what you’re trying to recycle, your location, and it will instruct you what to do; but its categories aren’t always useful. Distressingly few items have stamps indicating what type of plastic it is. Recycle BC has a useful app telling you how to dispose of plastics, but it’s only for packaging (more on that later). Carney’s [another waste management company] also has a website with guides, but again there’s only a few dozen categories listed. After a few minutes of earnest trying, it can be very easy to give up.

A similar message is echoed in the article ‘We can do a lot better’: Metro Vancouver recycling, composting rate stalls at 63%. Jiaying Zhao, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, says:

It’s kind of comedy to watch people sort — the signs are not helping at all. If anything some signs are so confusing that the residents just give up and just throw everything into the garbage.

Kate’s recycling story is neither meant to critique specific organizations, nor to glorify recycling (and being able to do it properly) as the solution to managing our endless cycle of consumption and waste. Yes, recycling is broken, but the social dynamics of this activity are very similar to the interactions we experience with public sector organizations at large.

Lots of government sector organizations function on the basis of compliance and yet it is so hard for the people to understand what they are required to do and how to do it, not unlike the sad ‘comedy’ described above.

What can we learn from the recycling ecosystem story through mapping?

There are many takeaways that can be gleaned through the creation of different types of maps.

I am not a recycling expert and I know nothing about the internal workings of the recycling organizations mentioned in this exploratory exercise and yet, I am still able to discover interesting patterns and questions that might be worth further exploration.

The types of maps I created take minimal amount of time and effort and can serve as excellent catalysts for conversation and further discovery.

Actors map

To better understand the recycling ecosystem that Kate experienced, I started with a simple map of actors.

Recycling ecosystem map composed of different actors represented by circles.
Map of actors. Turquoise colour highlights the organizations that Kate came in contact with as part of her experience. Grey organizations are part of the ecosystem, but Kate did not interact with them. Size of circles represents the relative scope of their influence (federal level would be bigger than municipal level) and there are clusters of proximity relating to municipal vs regional vs provincial levels.

As part of Kate’s experience, the recycling ecosystem is made up of the following major actors (some of which she became aware of, others that she did not come in direct contact with):

  1. City of Vancouver Recycling — municipal authority on the topic
  2. Recycle BC — a not-for-profit organization “responsible for residential packaging and paper product recycling throughout British Columbia”
  3. Recycling Council of British Columbia — a multi-sector non-profit that “facilitates the exchange of ideas and knowledge that enable efficient solutions to eliminate waste”
  4. British Columbia Government’s Recycling — provincial authority on the topic
  5. Metro Vancouver Recycles — regional recycling service locator that “makes it easy for residents and businesses in the Lower Mainland to donate or recycle just about anything”
  6. Regional Recycling Depot — regional recycling service; a “One Stop Recycling Shop offering a variety of recycling services and solutions”
  7. BC Recycles — a stewardship agency whose job it is “to make recycling easier for everyone”
  8. Canadian Government’s Managing and reducing waste — federal authority on the topic
  9. Canadian Plastic Industry Association — not-for-profit association “dedicated to the growth of plastics businesses and helping the industry reach its full potential”
  10. Media outlets like Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Courier, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), etc
  11. Alternative news sources from various publications and topic experts

Seeing all of these organizations in one space, I wondered:

Are all these organizations aware that they all might be part of people’s recycling experience, at the same time?

Actors map seen from a different perspective

I then looked at the same map from the perspective of different types of organizations involved.

Second iteration of the recycling ecosystem map composed of different actors represented by circles.
Map of actors. Colour of the circles represents different types of organizations (turquoise — federal (2), blue — provincial (5), grey — regional (2), lighter blue — municipal (1), taupe — media (1), and dusty pink — community experts (1)). Size of circles represents the relative scope of their influence (federal level would be bigger than municipal level) and there are clusters of proximity relating to municipal vs regional vs provincial levels.

This simple change of perspective and colour allowed me to see that there are a lot more organizations at the provincial level influencing the ecosystem.

I wondered:

How does saturation of recycling organizations at the provincial-level affect the ability of people to effectively recycle at the municipal level?

Information flow map

I then became curious to see how the information flowed in the system. Which actor (entity) referenced which entity and whether there were cyclical references that resulted in confusion.

To explore the information flow, I added arrows to my initial diagram.

Recycling ecosystem map composed of different actors represented by circles with information flow arrows included.
Map of actors with information flow arrows added. Colour of the circles represents the different types of organizations (turquoise — federal (2), blue — provincial (5), grey — regional (2), lighter blue — municipal (1), taupe — media (1), and dusty pink — community experts (1)). Size of circles represents the relative scope of their influence (federal level would be bigger than municipal level) and there are clusters of proximity relating to municipal vs regional vs provincial levels. Note: The thickness of the arrows does not represent a greater flow of information (this is a tool flaw).

The arrows helped me see that:

  • The Recycling Council of BC seems to be the most referenced resource and yet in Kate’s situation, it was not the most helpful
  • The direction of information flow is moving mostly towards the ‘provincial’ level of information, rather than the ‘city’ level, which arguably provided the most relevant answers to Kate’s questions

I wondered:

What would happen if the direction of the flow changed from provincial to municipal level instead?

Closer-look-at-actors map (not a real map, more of a list)

There was another important observation in examining the different actors and how they influenced the ecosystem — the number of different tools (variety of wizards and look up tools) that they created and made people use:

  1. Waste wizard — City of Vancouver
  2. Recyclepedia — RCBC (app)
  3. BC Recycles lookup- BC recycles (uses Recyclepedia, but it has a different look)
  4. Recycle BC’s Waste Wizard — Recycle BC (app) plus their own depot look up
  5. Metro Vancouver recycles depot lookup — Metro Vancouver Recycles

The main question that was immediately on my mind:

Do the different tools use the same taxonomy or share information?

A table summarizing the findings of searching for the same keywords in 4 different applications.
A table summarizing the findings of searching for the same keywords in 4 different applications.
A search for “4” and “glass” provides different results in the 4 different tools. City of Vancouver — “#4 Plastic containers” and “Glass bottles & jars”. RCBC Recyclepedia — “Plastic Code 4” and “Glass Container”. Recycle BC — nothing for “4” and “Non-deposit glass bottles and jars”. Metro Vancouver Recycles — “Plastic #4 (LDPE)” and “Glass containers (non-refundables).

This realization made me look closer at the City of Vancouver Waste Wizard, only to realize that my map of Kate’s recycling experience was missing one important actor: ReCollect.

The City is using ReCollect — a 3rd party Waste Wizard — to deliver its services.

Recycling ecosystem map composed of different actors represented by circles, with an additional actor added.
The updated diagram shows turquoise — federal (2), blue — provincial (5), grey — regional (2), lighter blue — municipal (1), taupe — media (1), dusty pink — community experts (1), steel grey — ReCollect — an international business (1).

ReCollect serves multiple cities in Canada and US and its business promise is:

Help people recycle right, while reducing contamination, wishcycling and call volumes with the waste industry’s most trusted digital communication tools.

Their site goes on to explain:

When people can quickly and easily search and get answers for “what goes where”, they develop better recycling habits. Engaged recyclers means reduced contamination and wishcycling in your program.

I can’t agree more! And they could be well positioned to fulfill their promise with powerful analytics, clear and task-focused content design, and a thorough taxonomy. If only ReCollect Waste Wizard was the only tool every recycler in Vancouver came in contact with!

I could see there were some unintended consequences. Something did not quite add up:

  1. “Our job, and the job of this site, is to make recycling easier for everyone.” — BC recycles
  2. “Each year, RCBC’s Information Services staff answer more than 200,000 questions from callers or web visits about pollution prevention, recycling and waste reduction.” — RCBC
  3. “Help people recycle right, while reducing contamination, wishcycling and call volumes with the waste industry’s most trusted digital communication tools.” — ReCollect
  4. One Stop Recycling Shop offering a variety of recycling services and solutions” — Regional Recycling Depot

I wondered:

Are the call centre questions and issues logged and is there a feedback mechanism between all these different organizations, tools, and systems?

Causal loop diagrams

I then tried to create a few causal loop diagrams which led to more insights.

There are two main types of feedback loops — reinforcing (R) and balancing (B). In Tools of a System Thinker, Leyla Acaroglu explains the difference really well :

A balancing feedback loop is where elements within the system balance things out. […]

A reinforcing feedback loop [however] is not usually a good thing. This happens when elements in a system reinforce more of the same, such as population growth or algae growing exponentially in a pond.

In reinforcing loops, an abundance of one element can continually refine itself, which often leads to it taking over.

When looking at the recycling ecosystem it is clear that there are a number of reinforcing feedback loops.

Reinforcing loop # 1

One such reinforcing loop is related to the quantity of information.

Reinforcing feedback loop diagram.
Reinforcing feedback loop diagram.
A diagram of a reinforcing information feedback loop in the recycling ecosystem.
  • The more information is available to people about the recycling via the different tools and websites, the less people know how to recycle
  • This means different organizations are less likely to meet their business objectives
  • This causes them to produce more tools and information to try and help people recycle better

It’s a terribly unproductive cycle.

Reinforcing loop #2

Another reinforcing loop is related to the organizational objectives and their respective tools.

If we look at Recycle BC (which is where Kate’s journey began), for example, and compare how this actor interacts with the City of Vancouver recycling, we will see another reinforcing loop.

It seems that the objectives of the 2 organizations are at odds, contributing to the reinforcement:

  • Recycle BC wants people to recycle what they accept — residential packaging and paper products. This recycling scope excludes a number of things that are covered by other organizations such as Regional Recycling Depot
  • The City of Vancouver Recycling wants people to be able to recycle everything they can properly, including items not included in Recycle BC’s scope
Reinforcing loop comparing the City’s activities and those of Recycle BC.
Reinforcing loop comparing the City’s activities and those of Recycle BC.
Another reinforcing loop showing how different organizations recreate a pattern of stuckness.

Basically, if we look at how just 2 of the many organizations within the ecosystem interact, we will see that:

  • The more people only recycle some things that can be recycled, the more the City’s goals are threatened
  • The more the City’s goals are threatened, the more they need their own tool (in this case, ReCollect)
  • The more people use the ReCollect tool, the more people recycle everything they can
  • The more people recycle everything they can, the more it is a threat to the goals of Recycle BC, as they only accept a portion of the items
  • The more the Recycle BC goals are threatened, the more they need their own waste wizard tool

The different mandates/goals of the organizations along with the different tools used to deliver these goals could be contributing to confusion about what can be recycled and how.

I wondered:

How might these organizations work towards co-operative results?

Now what?

If through this exploration you found value in understanding ecosystems of services, I suggest you check out resources and strategies listed in Part 1 of the series to get some ideas about how you can apply it to your own work!

:: digital content specialist — passionate about open learning + inclusion + collaboration + systems + stewardship + learning design + reflective practice ::

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