Blu Scan: An app to show people how to recycle right
This project began with the question "How might we Optimize and enhance the individual's role in the recycling system through Design Thinking?" What followed was two months of intense research that led to the conceptualization, design and plan for commercialization of an app that would conveniently show people which items are recyclable based on where they live and the best practices for depositing the recyclables in the bin.
With our initial primary research we found some disturbing truths. As an effort to increase recycling in the United States, local Governments adopted the single-stream recycling system, in which different recycling materials are mixed during its initial collection. Although this resulted in an increase in the volume of recyclables deposited by individuals, it has also exponentially increased the contamination of recyclables. This affects the value of recyclables when they are sold to recycling companies, thereby making the system commercially unviable and unsustainable. This Washington Post article explains more.
We then conducted research with users of the recycling system that lived in New England. We went to people's homes to understand their recycling habits, understand how they had learned to recycle, and uncover things they struggled with. We also conducted a survey (Sample size: 110).
"I think recycling is important. I started because my family recycled"
"If there's a recycling bin around, I put everything in there - used utensil, napkin - I just put it all in"
"I don't know what the recycling company is doing with my trash"
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do with the HDPE (plastic) numbers"
Some of the experts we spoke to during our research were Director of public works - town of Ellington, Education supervisor - Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA), General manager - All Waste Inc., Owner - AR Recycling LLC, and Design Strategist - Unilever. Much of what we had learned during the primary research was validated by them.
"There is a problem with current recycling activities mostly due to contamination caused by uninformed residents"
"The cost of upkeep of recycling machinery due to contamination is very high"
Main Findings and Defining Core Value
We identified four main areas that people needed more support on in order to recycle right. We then translated this to four features that our app must have.
The recycling symbols, that sometimes appear with instructions, on packaging cannot be solely relied on. Whether an item is recyclable or not depends on the location of the person, as MRF capabilities vary. A lot of research respondents also said that they couldn't fully understand what the symbols meant. For example, plastic numbers were confusing to people.
One of the main features of the app would be the ability to check recyclability of any packaging by scanning its barcode. The app would use the person's location and pre-filled profile information to determine if various parts of the packaging is recyclable with instructions on washing, separating etc. The barcode scanning and content maintenance would work very similar to MyFitnessPal.
Brainstorming and prototyping
Generating and maintaining content for the app would be an immense challenge and would need persuasion and collaboration from different stakeholders of the system.
"Waste is inevitable but we must keep the system sustainable for those recycling our waste."