Who Invented the Blue Box? Jack McGinnis did.

I was saddened to learn that Jack McGinnis, inventor of the ubiquitous curbside recycling, blue box, died earlier this year.  Sad at the death of someone who touched all our lives in such a positive way.  Sad because such an important social inventor should have been publicly eulogized.  Sad because I always wanted to know why they were painted blue and not green but never knew who to ask!

Most of us take curbside recycling for granted and forget someone or some group had to invent a practical alternative to mounting tons of garbage, much of which could be recycled.  We forget the limited awareness and limited means that used to be available for recycling less than 30 years ago.

McGinnis conceived of the blue box and the "We Recycle" slogan in 1977.  The first wide spread implementation was in Waterloo Ontario in 1983. It received the first ever UN Environmental Award for its unique contribution to fighting pollution.  The full story of the multiple players and initiatives that led to the convenience of curbside recycling can be accessed here. Another glorious example of the power of passionate amateurs!

Blue boxes are what I like to call an 'in the water supply' social innovation.  They have become a cultural habit.  Millions of households in hundreds of cities around the world use them.  They are as commonplace as brushing your teeth or … taking out the garbage.  They provide a simple and elegant solution to the complex problem of our declining natural resources and a practical means for people to recycle and to pressure their neighbours to do the same.  They encourage people to think about wasteful packaging.  They enable us to pressure manufacturers, grocery stores to reduce unnecessary packaging. 

It is hard to address the multiple variables (some known, most unknown) that make up the complex terrain of most of our social and environmental challenges.  In this regard, blue boxes address some of the tangible practical variables i.e. what to do with paper, glass and cans; as well as the intangible variables like personal and market place behaviour change, cultural attitudes, political awareness.  Blue boxes are a good example of framing that cuts through thick treatises, books and studies and provide an easy way for people do the right thing.  They are also a textbook example of piggy backing on an existing distribution system (waste management) rather than creating one of your own. 

Even though they are an icon of recycling, blue boxes are not a complete or permanent solution.  Some would argue the existence of blue boxes actually make people feel less guilty about buying heavily packaged products because they know they can recycle. That's why reduce and reuse are indispensable companions to recycling.

We can learn about the nature of social innovation from the blue box example.  In a complex environment the best you can hope for is a profound change or disruptive shift. There is no such thing as a permanent solution.  There will be unintended consequences.  Constant learning is a critical companion. They will set the stage for the next set of breakthroughs. Change no matter how hard we push, and its clear Jack McGinnis was persistent, simply takes time to become common place.  He once knocked on the door of 10 Downing St. to make the case for recycling, to the UK Prime Minister.

Jack McGinnis died too young at 64.   The entrance to his memorial service was lined with blue boxes and attendees wore a button that read, "Jack McGinnis changed my life."  From the interview below McGinnis was the kind of person less concerned about personal acknowledgement and happier his invention has spread so far and wide.   As I carry my blue box out to the curb on Mondays I will pause for a moment of appreciation and think about what I can do to render blue boxes obsolete.   By then their colour won't matter.  By the way, the answer to the colour blue, is revealed in the You Tube interview below.

Related Posts:

You Tube interview with Jack McGinnis

Two Views of Social Innovation

Social Innovation – Doing More With More

Neglected Sources of Innovation: Individuals and Families

Ten Environmental Innovations

Passionate Amateurs – A Primary Source of Social Innovation

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One Comment

  1. Rick Findlay

    Thanks for the excellent story about the origins of the Blue Box recycling system and the role that Jack McGinnis played with it. I just wanted to add a bit of information about where Jack and his team first tested out the blue box concept. I was working with Environment Canada and I worked with Jack and his IS Five friends to try out various techniques of recycling including drop-off depots and source separation techniques, at CFB Borden. The system that worked best by far, was curbside pickup using borrowed dairy cases (the kind that we all used as record album carriers!) to hold the paper, glass and cans. We later got some purpose built boxes that Jack selected and yes, he chose blue. Laidlaw came to Borden and saw the system, and decided to include it as part of their bid for the Waterloo waste pickup contract. And the rest is history!

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