“Beautiful design and good informational flow with a clear call to action. I’d love to see this rolled out.” —juror Keri Elmsly
“As sophisticated as the implementation is, this project succeeds by doing only one thing and doing it extremely well. And although it almost seems like technology overkill, the slick presentation layer enhances the effectiveness of the message.” —juror Nathan Moody
Overview: Sorting garbage into compost, recycling or landfill can be a surprisingly difficult task. To help University of Washington (UW) students with it, the Smart Bins installation features separate receptacles, each fitted with a scale, a microcomputer and a digital screen. When in use, the digital screens show how much money is saved by proper composting and recycling and the hypothetical campuswide savings if everyone did the same; when not in use, the screens show correctly sorted trash items cascading into each bin. For the 10 to 40 people per hour who have used Smart Bins since it launched at a UW campus café, throwing out garbage just became fun.
•The project is powered by several Raspberry Pis, programmed in Python.
•After installation, correct composting increased by 20 percent, and incorrect recycling decreased by 15 percent.
•The project, originally a concept developed by UW graduate students, took seven months to complete.
Comments by Karen Cheng:
What are the project’s core features? “First, the bins give users positive feedback for throwing away their waste. This was very surprising to users, because the normal trash experience is mindless—people generally don’t think at all when throwing something away. Second, users were very engaged by the video loop that plays when the bins aren’t in use. We call the loop ‘Sort Stream’ because it shows a stream of correctly sorted items falling into each bin. It was difficult finding an attractive way to show trash—garbage is inherently ugly! After several iterations, we found that arranging the items precisely—upright, in neat rows—gave the animations a kind of deliberate beauty and dignity.”
How many videos, images and other media elements does the project have? “Three Sort Stream videos—one each for compost, recycle and landfill—and three different ‘talk bubbles’/scale alerts—one for each of the bins. Each bubble/scale alert explains how much money could be saved if everyone at UW recycled or composted the same amount as the user has just thrown away. Savings are calculated by weight—UW pays $145 per ton for landfill and $60 per ton for compost, and recycling is free.”
What was the response? “After installation, correct composting increased by 20 percent, and incorrect recycling decreased by 15 percent. The overall amount of waste correctly diverted from landfill increased by 8 percent—a substantial environmental impact. For perspective, from 2009 to 2013, diversion increased 1 to 2 percent annually; from 2013 to 2015, diversion increased 3 to 5 percent annually from the implementation of public area/restroom paper towel composting. An unexpected result: the installation was quite popular because it was fun for students to throw away their garbage and receive feedback. This popularity generated an increased volume of trash, which required more labor from custodians to service. Our team is now seeking additional funding to create a new and improved version of the installation.”