Question: How can we use rewards or information to promote better recycling habits?

The question stated above was our starting point for the following research endeavor. Only 60% of reusable packaging is properly recycled, is there a way we as designers can increase that amount? In order to design a working solution we needed to learn more about the problem.


After reviewing the IDEO Field Guide, My team and I discussed how we would define the challenge at hand. We defined it as follows:

Our Challenge: Waste systems are in place, but the population has no motivation to follow; systematic errors are present in current recycling bins.

Initial Ideas

Initially we looked to our existing knowledge to speculate what the potential problems and solutions may be. We had a particular focus on behavior models and habit-forming strategies.

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Observations + Stakeholders

We began our primary research with observation. We observed people interacting with current waste disposal solutions. We constructed a stakeholders map and drew conclusions from our collected data.

Cultural Perspectives

Over our mid-semester break we took our research to Melbourne and Sydney to see how waste disposal issues differed between cities. Beyond this, I made note of waste disposal approaches in Japan in a trip I took following the conclusion of this project. Additionally, I looked at Japan's integration of their metro card as a payment method in other applications such as vending.


Secondary Research

To bolster our wealth of knowledge we also conducted extensive secondary research. We aimed our gaze at a number behavioral science texts by authors such as Don Norman. We also referred to several studies conducted by other universities around the world for information.

Cognitive Walkthrough + Personas

We began our primary research with observation. We observed people interacting with current waste disposal solutions. We constructed a stakeholders map and drew conclusions from our collected data.

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Primary Conclusions

After conducting our outward research we started to distill our information. We made these initial conclusions about our findings.

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Incentive-Based Ecosystems are Self-Sustaining

Through our research we found that the monetary bottle recycling incentive had caused Scavengers  to dig through any trash receptacles available and collect bottles, taking them to the recycling facilities. Since this was the only place they could receive their monetary rewards, it ensured that the bottles, even if missorted, would be disposed of properly.

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Opportunity Costs

Through secondary research we discovered the concept of opportunity cost. In an article from 2017, Choi and Koo from Seoul National University created the concept of opportunity cost: the quantification of negative factors considered an inconvenience. We used this in our own research to understand what prevented people to take the time to sort their trash.

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Elements of Simplicity

We understood we were trying to develop a habit-forming solution, so we conducted secondary research about the topic. We found the concept of The Elements of Simplicity, defined by behavioral scientist BJ Fogg. Fogg described these elements as areas to find deficits in to identify major user pain points.

In the book "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products" Author Nir Eyal states that in order to build successful habitual products a designer must focus on the element of simplicity the user has a deficit in.

After considering our personas, frameworks, and other research findings, we began to create an affinity map around the elements of simplicity that our potential users may have been facing.

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Design Opportunities

After our affinity mapping we concluded our primary research stage. From this point we were to explore potential design opportunities with the extensive collection of information we had gathered. Below are some potential design solutions I proposed for this project.This assignment required a digital interface for each concept.

Concept 1: Bottle Return Incentive

Playing off of our observations with the bottle scavengers, I wanted to explore how one could make that behavior more fun, socially acceptable, and convenient. This first concept proposes a smart bin that users can tap their phone to, deposit their bottles, and collect the return on the bottle in a digital wallet. With Japan's metro card integration in mind, I thought it would also be interesting to incorporate this wallet as a vending machine or arcade payment method or simply as a way of accumulating Google Play credit.

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Users graphically track how many bottles they have recycled responsibly.

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Users can locate a smart bin near their location and track their recently visited bins.

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Users accumulate money by properly recycling their bottles and cans.

Initial Ideations






What I Still Needed

How will the bottles be tracked?

The idea of making it easier for people to drop off their recyclable bottles was worth investigating, but it raised the question of how these bottles would be tracked and recorded without a person. My leading ideas were based around RFID or some other wireless identification system.

What kind of interface would be the most graphically engaging?

Like all good apps a good interface would be key in facilitating user engagement and repeat usage. I had an initial concept but I had to think of how to make a captivating way of displaying and recording the information to be shown.

What kinds of anti-abuse systems will be needed?

One of the key things to prevent in a monetary rewards system is abuse. Although an automated  incentive system would be easier to use, it would also be easier for people to take advantage of it. With this in mind I had to start thinking of what abuses I needed to protect against.

What human factors need to be considered with the physical bin?

The app needed to be engaging and intuitive, but the physical bin was just as important. I needed to think of how the user was going to interact with the bin and design accordingly.

Concept 2: Fast Food Waste

This concept came from another one of our observations. I noticed that fast food packaging is often disposed of improperly simply because people don't separate their trash. This design proposes an auto-sorting waste bin, standardized packaging for fast food, and an app (either on your phone or built into the bin) that lets users explore where their garbage goes.

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Users could view the garbage that was part of their order.

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There would be exploded views of each element for further viewing.

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Users could learn specific information about each part of their garbage.

Initial Ideations






What I Still Needed

How can this be incentivized to justify repeat use?

This idea was potentially very informative for users, but there was no real draw for repeated usage, or even usage in the first place. Drawing from my first concept and prior research, I though to explore different incentives.

How valuable or relevant is the educational element?

Although the app and bin would educate users about their waste, how many users would actually value or desire that kind of information? Could there be ways to incorporate the education factor in a positive way?

How would the bin detect what was actually in the order/what the user disposed of?

For this problem I started to explore how the bin could track the contents that the user provided and compare it to what the user had received in the first place.

Developed Concepts

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Using the concepts of incentive and variable reward, the following design solution aimed to encourage users to sort their garbage.

For This concept to be feasible, several systematic changes would have to have occurred:

1. Mcdonald's reduces the number of materials used in their packaging

2. Mcdonald's will have to make arrangements with the appropriate parties for running a recycling incentive program

Standardized, single material packaging

I proposed that Mcdonalds could reduce the number of materials used in their packaging to make it possible for people to sort their trash easier. In addition, I proposed that the packaging could be patterned based on the material it was made of, allowing users to easily identify each packaging material for more clarity while sorting.

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Smart Bin with User Interface

Part of this solution would require a smart bin. This smart bin would be labelled with the patterns of the different packaging materials to identify the correct spots to put them. Users would be able to earn redeemable points for properly sorting their trash. Inspired by the Japanese subway system, I thought the bin could also create a closed-loop system for receipts by making users insert their receipts to confirm what packaging the bin should expect, effectively collecting the paper receipt.

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Integrated Points Section of Mcdonald's App

Users would be able to track their points in an additional section of the Mcdonalds app. These points could be redeemed for free items on the menu. I proposed that there could be visualizations of the point progress towards any items.

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Credit to my Team: Monika Danh, Nathan Siu, Kathrine Barrett, George Patrikis.