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Grey Is The New Beige

In the opening voiceover for his Oscar-winning animated short Ryan, Chris Landreth explains, “I live in Toronto, a city in Canada where I see way too many shades of grey for my own good health.” This line occurred to us as we attended the official unveiling of Toronto’s new “street furniture” at City Hall Monday morning, a celebration of the all-new shades of grey about to trickle onto our streets.
Courtesy of Jeremy Kramer (pictured above), who has gotten almost as rich designing grey, curvy ad structures as Daniel Libeskind has silver, jagged museums, the new street furniture is as about as bland and generic as one would expect from infrastructure created by a billboard company. As Jules Goss, the chair of OCAD’s industrial design program, told the Globe, “It is important that a city have a fairly significant sense of place, and I would suggest this furniture could be just as easily applied in another city and have exactly the same aesthetic impact.” The shelters, for example, are pretty much the same as the ones Kramer designed for Mississauga and Baltimore.
The City had originally hoped for street furniture that was modular and customizable, that could be adjusted to fit the physical and aesthetic characteristics of each neighbourhood in which it was placed. What they got was a one-size-fits-all approach in which neighbourhood uniqueness means BIA logos on washrooms and newspaper boxes, and, oh, maybe different colours. The streetcar shelters in Chinatown, for example, will be red [WMV].
We’ll have an in-depth look at the rest of the items a little later on today, but for now here are our thoughts on the garbage bins.

Available in both a three-slot model (above, top) and a two-slot model (above, bottom, to the right of Kramer), these were the items we were most curious about. As even Joe Clark admitted in his critique of the original renderings, “Frankly, I like the super-futuristic design of pot-bellied plastic. I’m sorry. I do.”
On the level of functionality, however, they have turned out to be a bust. The awesome-in-theory innovation of offering a foot pedal which opens the flaps has been revealed, on these prototypes anyway, to have been a gimmick: not only are the pedals inaccessible to people in mobility devices (e.g. wheelchairs), but they’re so hard to push down that even young children will have difficulty using them. And that’s also presuming that a buildup of snow underneath won’t, as Astral promises, interfere.
But even if you manage to push the pedal down, the flaps barely open enough for you to stick anything inside without having to cram it through (see photos above, taken with the pedal fully depressed). You can also forgo the pedal and push open the flaps manually but unlike with the current SilverBoxes, these flaps (presumably as a result of the pedal mechanism) are spring-loaded. The problem Kramer tried to solve was how to let people use garbage bins without having to touch the icky flaps; instead he ironically produced a product that requires considerably more contact and interaction with those contaminated services.
Jonathan Goldsbie is a campaigner with the Toronto Public Space Committee. Photos by Jonathan Goldsbie.


  • rek

    I place the blame for this squarely on the City. Evidently we don’t deserve better.

  • Amanda Buckiewicz

    I agree, the designs are bland, but I don’t want my garbage cans to be fancy-shmancy. They’re for garbage, and I’d much rather they be as inconspicuous as possible.
    Shame about the foot pedals, though. How are they proposing that the snow won’t affect them? With the curved design, they won’t exactly be easy to plow around.

  • james a

    These are actually quite attractive..
    I guess we’ll see how they look once they’re crusted with the residue of hundreds of scraped off posters, but for now I’d say they’re ok.

  • Ben

    The cigarette butt repository is a huge bonus. Now that there will be an alternative, the city can start fining butt-litterers.
    A compostables section would have been nice.

  • David Topping

    Sure, it may not be functional, or pretty, but it strikes me that this design is a great way to meet that someone special (per television commercial/crappy romantic-comedy rules). There’s only one foot pedal total to push for all three slots total, right? So you are holding some garbage and this other attractive person of the opposite/same sex has something to recycle and you both move towards the bin at the same time and then you graciously allow them to go first but they insist you go first and so you both press the pedal with your feet and then laugh and you realize they’re recycling something you also recycle regularly, and they realize you’re throwing something out that they throw out regularly, and it’s the first thing you ever do together and then you fall in love. And you get married and hold your wedding in a transit shelter and honeymoon in the $1 self-cleaning toilet. Thanks, Astral!

  • xtremesniper

    David, you have way too much time on your hands. That’s all I’m going to say about that above comment. =P

  • scientz

    They actually do look really good, but it’s disappointing that they don’t open much and that they have a foot peddle.
    Good try, Toronto. Better luck next time, champ.

  • Mark Ostler

    As long as they hold everything they’re supposed to until the truck picks up the trash/recycling/cigarette butts, I don’t really care what they look like.

  • Apricot

    I don’t mind the design myself, but the flaps’ inability to open is a real deal breaker. I can’t see many people bothering to struggle with a gap that is too narrow to take their trash.

  • joeclark

    Anyone who’s used a screwdriver will have confidence that spring tension and range of flap travel can be adjusted.

  • Jonathan Goldsbie

    As someone who has not used a screwdriver, Joe, I do not have that confidence.

  • Miles Storey

    Meh, I agree that trash bins shouldn’t stand out but at the same time they need to visible so people can use them and these just seem to blend into the background, even on display as in the pictures above.
    This look completely over-designed, a failed attempt to be cool-looking and cutting-edge when functional and not ugly was all that was required. The pedal, which did sound like a good idea, looks, in keeping with the whole approach, to be just a gimmick.
    Do these look like they hold as much as the current bins? They look smaller to me.
    Other than the slots being too small what exactly is wrong with the current bins?

  • syoung

    I think the most important issue here is accessibility. The foot pedal is completely inaccessible to anyone but a fully able bodied person. Was this not even a consideration of the committee choosing the winning designs? It’s amazing how quickly people forget that not everyone in society is the same.
    Can the flaps be operated by hand (simply pushed)? I haven’t heard either way.

  • Jonathan Goldsbie

    Do these look like they hold as much as the current bins? They look smaller to me.
    As per the City’s original Request for Proposals, the smaller receptacles contain two bins of 120 litres each, one for waste and the other for recycling, while the larger receptacles have three bins of the same volume, with one for waste and two for recycling. The current OMG/Eucan/EcoMedia SilverBoxes have three bins (2 recycling, one waste), each with a volume of 100 litres.
    Other than the slots being too small what exactly is wrong with the current bins?
    The first few generations of SilverBoxes (installed as early as 1999) were of very poor quality, constructed out of flimsy, easily damaged materials. Many have had to be replaced. The newer SilverBoxes, which are actually black, look to be considerably sturdier. But like their predecessors, their doors (on both the front and back) tend to fall open a lot and don’t always easily close back up.
    More to the point, however, is the fact that the City’s contract for those bins expires next year, and even though the ownership would revert to the City, so many are in such poor shape that the City took the Coordinated Street Furniture Program as an opportunity to get new bins that will hopefully prove to be more durable. But, yes, it’s still totally a waste to junk the ones that are in good working order. Just take the ads off and let them be, until such time as they fall apart.

  • Jonathan Goldsbie

    Can the flaps be operated by hand (simply pushed)?
    As I wrote, “You can also forgo the pedal and push open the flaps manually but unlike with the current SilverBoxes, these flaps (presumably as a result of the pedal mechanism) are spring-loaded.”
    So the answer, is yes, they can be operated by hand, but until or unless the springy resistance is removed or greatly reduced, they will be remarkably unpleasant to use in that way.

  • dowlingm

    “it’s still totally a waste to junk the ones that are in good working order.”
    I agree, so then ebay them or whatever the equivalent is for municipalities. Even in their current condition some less well-off urban council in rural Ontario might take them for the cost of transporting them.
    Leaving them in place will mean that poorer neighbourhoods will be stuck with them much as they are stuck with 50-year-old bus shelters, because there’s not enough ad-money. If the old ones are removed then Astral has to treat all of the city equally.

  • re_mastered

    Honestly, as a designer, I wish we were taking a more environmentalist approach to designing waste disposal units.
    Here we have something that is supposed to encourage recycling when the unit is made entirely of plastic.
    I really wished that we would have done better than this. (Kind of makes me want to design my own version and pitch it to the city)
    That being said, it really isn’t that much of an improvement over the current garbage units.

  • AdamSchwabe

    I’m confused… the flaps seem to indicate I can throw cans, glass bottles AND newspapers into the same place? How does that work, and why are there two of them?

  • Svend

    Since the flap and the foot pedal have a moving mechanical linkage, count on it to fail.
    I like the idea the post boxes and libraries have, you just pull the weighted door and drop your item down the chute. Of course that means touching an icky handle, maybe we need people stationed at each box wearing gloves to open them for us.

  • uskyscraper

    Should have used the wood (or fake wood, or whatever it is) from the benches as the color stripe on the bins rather than the dark grey.

  • Gloria

    I think I’m OK with regular, open garbage cans.
    Maybe it’s worth having to stare at all the trash we throw away, rather than trying to hide it. Sure, it might smell and some of it might blow away in the wind, but maybe we’ll pay more attention to how much of it we make. That’s the danger, isn’t it? Out of sight, out of mind.

  • Val Dodge

    Any garbage can that requires instructions (“Flaps open when pushed” and whatever it says on the foot pedal) is a miserable failure of excessive design.

  • Ryan L

    “Should have used the wood (or fake wood, or whatever it is) from the benches as the color stripe on the bins rather than the dark grey.”
    Wood trim can look dated very, very quickly. Take old station wagons or wood paneling as an example.
    From a design perspective, I think they did a pretty good job. The neutral colours won’t interfere with surrounding neighbourhood scenery. Using multiple designs for different neighbourhoods sounds nice in theory, but in reality doesn’t work out so well. When you’re constructing several thousand of something, it turns out that sticking to a single design is significantly cheaper and much faster to produce.
    While the flap might turn out to be a problem if it continues to be that tough to open, I would think that would be something very easily adjusted.
    What do people expect? Motion sensor flaps? People bitch about having to touch flaps of existing bins, they bitch about the foot pedals, they bitch about open bins and the sad thing is, its usually the same people bitching.
    If you don’t like a company because of its business in mainstream advertising, then fine, talk about that. But -trying- to find something wrong with everything they do to support your dislike only lessens your credibility. People stop taking you seriously as critic and start seeing you for what you really are, a closed minded individual.
    If Ebert and Roeper started claiming that every movie released by Paramount was utter shit, you’d start losing respect for their position as a critic too. “That gladiator’s costume shouldn’t have bronze trim. That’s not accurate to the period. Thumbs down.” “I don’t like his mustache. Thumbs down.”
    Even Joe Clark is managing to be reasonable. This is the guy who takes people on tours of the TTC, pointing out bad choices in typography.

  • Svend

    Ryan, criticizing our criticism would have to stop as well. ;-)

  • Jenelle DaSilva-Rupchand

    Agreed, Ben. I have yet to find a street waste receptacle for biodegradable waste; it’s always irritated me. Jonathan, know the story behind that one?

  • joeclark

    Ryan L., it isn’t a question of being “reasonable,” rather one of honestly reporting one’s reactions.

  • robswizzle

    A street waste receptacle for biodegradable waste is better known as a “rat”.

  • Jonathan Goldsbie

    The original Request for Proposals said that the waste receptacle “Compartments should be interchangeable i.e. ashtray, battery compartment or the option of organics in one of the compartments.”
    In response to a question from one of the bidders, the City issued this clarification: “The City does not have any plans to collect organics from street receptacles at this time. However, the bin design should clearly demonstrate versatility of adapting to organic collection should the City decide to include organics in the future. Bin designs that are not adaptable to organic collection will receive lower scores.”
    The final contract says that Astral has to “work with the City to integrate ‘Green Bin’ organics collection into the litter/recycling receptacles to be provided under this Agreement.”
    What sorts of garbage are collected in Toronto, and how, where, and when, are decisions made by the City’s Solid Waste Management Services division (with policy direction coming from Council). As the Green Bin program has still yet to be expanded to residential buildings with nine or more units (that is, almost every apartment building and condo), even though the program was phased in to single-family dwellings from 2002-2005, I would be surprised if the City institutes on-street organics collection within the next five years.

  • user8909

    tupperware chic

  • http://undefined Pals

    Unfortunately, the cigarette butts opening is not visible and people are not aware of it. More than ever before they smoke and drop the cigarette butts everywhere on the ground (even one step away from the ashtray) but never in the ashtray. Everybody does it, young and old, students, casual and dressed up, all smoking carelessly and then dropping the rest of their cigarette right on the spot. People who have most likely received proper instruction on basic manners throughout their lives, are nonetheless behaving in this way.
    Our streets are becoming an eyesore and this is really upsetting.
    We definitely need a re-education program, we need more signs in simple English to say it clearly:
    We need to write clearly on the front page of the newspapers and magazines, send emails, publish on Facebook. Please, tell your neighbours, your kids, your relatives, display posters in public places, commercials, ads, and hopefully the message will get there sooner. Hopefully, we will have cleaner streets and more responsible citizens who are sensitive to the needs of their community.