How many people does it take to recycle a CFL lightbulb?

I bought my first CFL yesterday. Because I’m the kind of person I am, I read the package and noted the command to give spent bulbs to a recycling center because the bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury. The packaging directed me to, which is slightly more friendly than 1998-era websites, but not by much. If you want to find out where a local recycling center is, you have to click a large box that brings you to yet another website, this one called earth911.

Then you have to make yet another pair of decisions: write the kind of thing you want to recycle and your zip code. Only then do you actually get a list of places (but no map).

If whatever industry consortium is behind actually wanted you to recycle your lightbulbs, they would a) tell you that Home Depot and Lowe’s both accept CFL recycles and b) they would give you a website that offers a single text box with a zip code in it. Type your zip code, find the nearest recycling centers. Each hoop means more people will say “whatever” and not bother. That, of course, is probably precisely the point: makers of CFL need PR cover but probably don’t want to have to pay for disposal.

I became more attuned to these kinds of design questions after reading The Design of Everyday Things, which is about meatspace, not the digital world, but offers lessons that often apply to the online world too. One is this: you should make things as easy as possible for the people using your product, whatever it may be, and “easy” is often surprisingly precise. In this case, it means bringing the random joe who goes to your site to a recycling center as fast as possible. And, assuming Home Depot and Lowe’s keep accepting CFLs, you don’t even need the Internet, or at least not as a primary information distribution mechanism.

This is probably about as effective as complaining about, but the broader lesson is still an important one: make things easy for your users / readers. And if you’re running a major site, consider getting someone to edit it; I don’t take it as a good sign when the English is this bad on the “Earth911” site: “Sealed within the glass tubing of CFLs, is a very small amount of mercury.” Native English speakers would normally write, “A very small amount of mercury is sealed in the glass tubing of CFLs.” But if the site is not primarily to inform, you wouldn’t care about that sort of thing.

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