Recycling With a Smile: Simple Recycling Technology Boosts Diversion Rates

The WeRecycle bin experiments with simple technological feedback to change recycling behavior and increase on-the-go recycling rates.

December 3, 2012

7 Min Read
Recycling With a Smile: Simple Recycling Technology Boosts Diversion Rates

Jenna Jambeck, Ph.D., Kyle Johnsen, Ph.D. and Eliana Mozo-Reyes

If you believe that technology has a finite point relevant to attainting sustainability, then by default, human behavior must be considered. Human behavior is especially relevant in the case of solid waste management where reducing, reusing and recycling of waste all encompass a personal decision. The Industrial Revolution brought us technology, advancement and comfort, all steps in the right direction. However, advanced technology can also create a “disconnection” with nature and the natural world and exacerbate the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) mentality if people don’t understand the connection between, for example, waste collection and management with what actually occurs at a recycling facility or landfill.

Our current excessive consumption rates often are enabled by technological advancement. However, we cannot and should not go backwards. We propose to smartly use technology to reconnect people with their environment and behavioral impacts. Moreover, we need to change people’s behavior to reduce our impact on the environment by engaging, interacting and educating with culturally relevant technology.

The overall objective of our work was to establish the relationship between certain techno-social events and recycling rates, as well as changes in human responses to recycling in different social environments. Specifically, we analyzed and tested different stimuli to evaluate their impacts on recycling; created and modified different testing devices (e.g., visual aids and/or electronic human-computer interfaces), and evaluated these in different social environments.

Commitment by the public is a critical component to any environmental approach that depends on community participation and response. Working in a community in order to achieve a better life for future generations (though it is a moral issue for many), still encompasses “working,” and in people’s busy lives, that kind of idealism is not always convenient. In addition, people do not feel the need to put time and effort into initiatives that they feel should be managed by large companies and/or govern- ment. With this in mind, it is not surprising that many individu- als do not feel it is necessary to engage in pro-environmental activities, such as recycling.

Lighting Upon a Solution

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Recycle on the Go” initiative estimates that 30 to 40 percent of our waste is generated outside our home. We want to help capture the recyclables in that waste stream.

To that end, the WeRecycle bin for on-the-go public recycling was designed and built in the University of Georgia College of Engineering. The bin provided feedback with some very simple and low-power mechanisms. Red LED lights around the top of the bin turned green when an item was placed in the bin, while an LCD counter increased by one (pictured right). The bin was a very low-cost modification of an existing bin.

The WeRecycle bin’s impact on recycling was tested in both a macrosocial (community-based) environment and a microsocial (every day) environment. The macrosocial environment was a University of Georgia football game: a large public event where people gather in a community with a specific purpose – to cheer on their team. First came a baseline game in which a normal recycling bin was deployed in the UGA student union food court, adjacent to the stadium. It was observed and the collected items counted. During the experimental game the WeRecycle bin served the same location.

Quantitative results showed that while more people attended the baseline game, more items were recycled during the game in which the WeRecycle bin was used (i.e., there was a statistically significant increase in items recycled with the WeRecycle bin – visitors to the building were used to normalize the data as well). Other interesting results included a discernible trend in recycling frequency over the course of the game day. Although obvious, this trend has not been documented before. With an observation of the bin for three hours before the game and one hour after the game started, a clear trend of an increase in visits to the bin until the game started was observed. And more visits were counted at the WeRecycle bin.

The fact that people used the WeRecycle bin more is significant; however, the qualitative data collected through observations were more descriptive of the attitudes of the users. For example, users of the WeRecycle bin were talking to each other and sharing advice about recycling, such as, “Wait, take off the cap from the bottle,” and “You are doing it wrong; let me show you.” A group of participants used the bin and a young boy from this group recycled an item himself. When the bin reacted, the entire group cheered and celebrated, which drew attention to the bin. Most of the participants from this group had the opportunity to try the bin individually.

Soon, the WeRecycle bin was receiving attention from people who had been encouraged by others to watch or use it, a domino effect that could lay the basis for possible organizational change. Peer pressure, being on the spot, the nervousness of doing something right can be very powerful in the macrosocial environment (the power of the context) and by the end of the game, the environment was filled with comments about the WeRecycle bin, laughter and a positive attitude promoting interest.

Finally, at the beginning of the WeRecycle bin observation, one individual commented: “I ain’t touching that,” but he later picked up a bottle from another table to throw into the WeRecycle bin, demonstrating the potential of the interface as a behavior-modifying tool.

The microsocial environment experiments produced similar results. The experiment consisted of three trials, each 28 days long. The baseline experiment employed the normal recycling bin, the second was a non-technological bin modification (a sign and a white board for open communication between users) and the third was the placement of the WeRecycle bin. The WeRecycle bin had statistically significant more items in it (when the data was normalized by the number of visitors to the building) when compared to the baseline and the non-technological trial. While the community increase and social change was slower to happen in the microsocial environment, near the end of the WeRecycle trial, people were observed showing the bin to others and ushering them to use it.

Upgrades and Onwards

Since the positive results of the first generation WeRecycle bin, we have modified and streamlined the design to include more technology (patent pending) without sacrificing low power use, cost and simplicity. The goal is to offer feedback sufficient to alter behaviors and nothing more. The newest version of the WeRecycle technology is contained within a lid that can be placed on a standard container recycling bin or a single-stream recycling bin. The improved technology now offers:

• Green LED lights -- when an item is recycled the bin “smiles” at the recycler;

• The aforementioned counter;

• Technology to prevent people from “gaming” the counter with their hands;

• The ability to send all data wirelessly with an available Wi-Fi network;

• A notice if the top of the bin is taken off (and disabling of the counter while the top is off); and

• A sensor to communicate bin level, so it’s clear when the bin needs to be emptied.

The wireless connection and data transmission represents a powerful upgrade. The real-time trend spotting that required a live observer in the first generation WeRecycle bin is now available through the real-time data transmission to our database. This data will eventually be displayed on the WeRecycle website where bins in different locations can be used to compete via their counters.

Future improvements, which again will not compromise the low-cost or low-power consumption of the bin, include a solar power alternative to the onboard battery (enabling more remote placement) and the detection of plastic versus aluminum containers being deposited. We also hope to eventually use cell networks for data transmission.

Seeking Test Subjects

Although the initial study at UGA demonstrates the WeRecycle bin’s positive influence, we would like to investigate the long-term impacts of the bin. We are looking for partners willing to place bins for beta testing in their communities or at their events. While not everyone needs this kind of overt feedback to recycle, the feedback has the potential to create new recyclers. It is our hope that the feedback will establish recycling as a habit, so that even if a WeRecycle bin is not available, these new users will continue to recycle.

With the low cost of the technology, the ability to modify exist- ing bins and use typical bin configurations, we also hope that the use of WeRecycle bins can be easily expanded to all interested communities. Please contact the authors if you are interested in participating in this research.

This research was funded by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation and full results will be available in journal articles and a final report to EREF by January 2013.

Jenna Jambeck is an Assistant Professor in Environmental Engineering at the University of Georgia. Kyle Johnsen is an Assistant Professor of Computer Systems Engineering at the University of Georgia. UGA Research Assistants included Eliana Mozo-Reyes, MS and Colby Sweet.

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