Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The wide range of designs U.K. municipalities use for their ubiquitous plastic receptacles are getting their due, thanks to Harry Trimble.
In the everyday run of things, few pay much attention to their municipal trash can. These plastic receptacles, after all, aren’t exactly known for their eye-catching features—but maybe they should be.
One website and its corresponding Instagram account show that trash cans distributed by local authorities in Britain can exhibit an unexpected riot of variety and visual information. Curated by designer Harry Trimble, Govbins.uk is a gallery of what the British call “wheelie bins” that’s developing a following for its charting of a mundane yet satisfying corner of urban design.
Browse the account and you’ll find that despite their uniform shape and size, each receptacle has its own personality. There’s the heraldic Welsh dragon emblazoned on the dark grey bins of Cardiff and the Lamb of God symbol found on the side of Preston’s Green number—an apparently gentle logo whose latest incarnation has nonetheless been damned by locals for “looking like a camel,” and having “cunning shifty eyes.” Brighton and Hove, meanwhile, has gone all-out with a silhouette of the city’s faux-Mughal Royal Pavilion on the side of a bin whose color sits deliciously somewhere between spearmint and British Racing Green. The London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham teases the viewer with an off-center logo placement, while Hertsmere Borough Council’s version shows supreme confidence in expecting its sleek, stylized H logo to make its bins instantly placeable by residents.
Trimble notes that the trash can designs reveal differences in the ways local authorities imagine themselves and their relations with citizens. “When you look at a bin,” he recently told CityLab over the phone, “you can see how a council thinks about itself. Some have an old shield or crest from medieval times—an appeal to tradition and continuity—while others have a pared-back logo and a name that seek to present the council as a more modern public service.”
Perhaps the most extreme example of this appeal to history is the trash can provided by Aylesbury Vale. Its logo is a silhouette of local boy John Hampden, a member of parliament whose attempted arrest by King Charles I sparked the English Civil War. A rebellious 17th century puritan pointing enigmatically isn’t the first thing you’d expect to find on your recycling vat. By contrast, you could arguably say the rough-edged, minimal appearance of trash cans in East London’s fashionable and heavily gentrified Hackney is as much of a statement about its district as Hampden’s accusing finger.
The amount of detail included on the trash can can also be telling. Some featureless cans imply the local authorities wish to be an arm’s-length service while others go the extra mile to add phone numbers and URLs. Despite an appealing rusty terracotta color, the blankness of Tunbridge Wells’s trash can perhaps suggests an authority that would really rather fade into the background. Others, Trimble says, have used their bins as a city branding exercise.
Liverpool’s trash cans are now available in miniature at the Museum of Liverpool shop with the legend “I’ve Wheelie Been To Liverpool.” It might seem odd for a municipal garbage collection to become an emblem of a major city but, looking at Liverpool’s appealing prancing cormorant on an intense purple background, why not? Sometimes it’s worth thinking a little less about the trash in your life and more about the life in your trash.