A holistic solution to enhance students' recycling practices on campus keeping in mind their intrinsic motivation

My Role

  • UX Designer
  • UX Researcher
  • UX Writer

Project Overview

In the United States, improper recycling practices represent a major issue. Although there have been initiatives to encourage recycling, students frequently engage in incorrect recycling behaviors, which results in a large volume of waste being diverted to landfills. Proper recycling of materials such as paper, metal, cardboard, and plastic has the potential to cut landfill waste in half. Therefore, addressing the challenges related to recycling is more important than ever.

This project aims to identify the underlying reasons for improper recycling habits and to create strategies and solutions that foster effective recycling practices among students.

Target Users

Students of Indiana University

The Problem

  • User Awareness - Addressing confusion about where different types of trash should be disposed of.
  • User Motivation - Ensuring consistent recycling behaviors and offering opportunities for those highly motivated to make a greater impact.

The Solution

We suggest a comprehensive approach that includes:

  • Redesigning posters near trash bins
  • Developing a mobile app to educate users
  • Establishing a Recycling Club

Our solution aims to clear up confusion and ignorance regarding waste management and foster intrinsic motivation among users.

My UX Design Process

01 Discover

Secondary Research

Studies show that 94% of Americans are in favor of recycling, with 74% believing it should be a high priority. However, only around 35% actively participate in recycling. The main reason for this low participation rate is the lack of knowledge and awareness among Americans.

According to the NYPost, "more than half of Americans are not very sure of what to recycle." In a survey of about 2,000 Americans, 62% admitted they might be recycling incorrectly due to insufficient knowledge.



say they always recycle a recyclable item


believe greasy pizza boxes can be recycled


believe used plastic utensils can be recycled


To gain deeper insights into user behavior, we observed students disposing of waste around the campus, particularly near the dining hall, cafeteria, and library. We observed that students often discarded recyclable and reusable items into landfill bins and placed unclean recyclable materials into the recycling bin.


Our team conducted eight student interviews. The results revealed a common theme of confusion and frustration among students regarding waste disposal. Specifically, they expressed confusion about how to properly dispose of waste and frustration with unclear instructions. Additionally, three of the interviewees highlighted their unawareness of the impact of recycling, which they felt contributed to their apathy towards proper recycling practices.

I have been here in Indianapolis all my life, but I am still not sure about what goes where
Anonymous Participant
Undergraduate Student, IUPUI
If people are able to have that title of being like hey I'm the best recycler in this day or in this district, it'll be it'll be cool to see
Anonymous Participant
Graduate student, IUPUI
I used to separate recyclables back at home. Since I moved out, I stopped doing it because my roommates are lazy
Anonymous Participant
Undergraduate student, IUPUI
I think for some people and even now even like myself like sometimes we wonder like what really is recyclable and what is not. So yeah, I think little infographics would be pretty cool
Anonymous Participant
Undergraduate student, IUPUI

Affinity Diagram

The Affinity Diagram was used to gather and organize insights from interviews, observations, and research, providing a comprehensive view of the issue and allowing for the creation of a problem statement. This method helped identify relationships and patterns within the data.

Fig 1. Affinity Mapping done on Miro with major and minor themes identified in black

User Empathy Map

To gain insights and develop empathy for our user group prior to creating a user persona, we utilized an Empathy Map. This tool helped us prioritize the needs of our users. The data collected from actual users was then used to construct the user persona.

User Personas

In our research progression, we developed a user persona to expand upon the insights gathered in the empathy map, transforming them into detailed descriptions of user types. This persona helped center our design process around the user, fostering empathy for their needs, goals, and behaviors.

02 Analyze

The Core Problem

How might we design for busy university students to eliminate their confusion and encourage them to recycle properly and consistently, while taking into account their need for convenience?

Brainstorming Solutions

To address the challenge of guiding busy university students towards consistent recycling while prioritizing convenience, we initially brainstormed a multitude of ideas, disregarding feasibility at this stage. Each team member contributed individually before consolidating ideas as a group. These concepts were evaluated based on their potential value to users and the business, as well as technical feasibility, using a Mind Map to visualize our ideation process.

Fig 2. Ideation Mind Map done on Figma post disucssions with all team members


03 Prototype

Information Architecture for the Mobile Application

Low-Fidelity Wireframes

Fig 3 to 6. Lo-fi wireframes of Home screen, Item Search and Item Details Screens
Fig 7 to 11. Lo-fi wireframes of Community Member, Community Admin, and Game Screens
Fig 12 to 15. Lo-fi wireframes of Nearest Disposal Site and Item Scanner Screens

Poster Redesign

We recognized that redesigning recycling bin illustrations could significantly reduce confusion about trash disposal at a low cost and rapid pace, also serving as a gateway for our Mobile Application.

Strategically positioned in high-traffic areas frequented by students, our newly designed poster engaged students and clarified recycling procedures, as observed during our monitoring sessions. Follow-up surveys with students confirmed the poster's effectiveness, noting its clear, visually appealing illustrations.

Fig 16 and 17. Traditional poster design and our Redesign

04 Test

Heuristic Evaluation

Each team member independently applied Nielsen's ten usability heuristics to our wireframe designs, identifying four major usability issues with severity ratings of 3-4. We addressed these issues with actionable improvements as we proceeded to Usability Testing. Below is an example excerpt from our Usability Aspect Report detailing one identified issue:

Usability Testing

Our team conducted usability tests with five users for the mobile application, assigning specific tasks to gauge product usability. We monitored user interactions closely during task completion:

  • Checking recyclability of items via scanning
    Task success rate: 5/5
    Time on task: Users finished the task in less than 20 seconds on an average
  • Joining and registering for community events:
    Task success rate: 5/5
    Time on task: Users finished the task in 20 to 30 seconds on an average
  • Creating an event as an admin:
    Task success rate: 2/5
    Time on task: On an average, the failed users took around 1 minute
  • Navigating to nearby collection centers:
    Task success rate: 5/5
    Time on task: On an average, users took 15 seconds to finish the task

Three participants expressed enthusiasm for community engagement, though one was hesitant pending interest in events, and another was less inclined towards membership. These insights highlight areas for enhancing community appeal.

05 Reflect

Hi-Fidelity Prototype

Fig 18. RecycleMe Homescreen

The mobile app's home screen prominently features all its functionalities, with an emphasis on community engagement to foster collaborative problem-solving.

A floating Item Scanner button facilitates quick access for users to scan items for recycling details.

Fig 19. Item Search
Fig 20. Item Search Results
Fig 21. Item Details
Fig 22. Item Scanner
Fig 23. Community feature - Member landing page

Members are presented with the following screen after login. Members can view the events that are planned by the Recycling Club and can register to the event they are interested in.

The screen also shows statistics of the impact that the club has created. This helps the members to feel motivated.

Members can also vote for the upcoming events. The poll is created by an admin.

Fig 24. Event Description
Fig 25. Community Moderator View
Fig 26. Add Events, Announcements and Polls

06 Iterate

Project Post-Mortem

Part of my process is to analyze at the end how the project went about and dissect the processes to look for opportunities for improvement. As a surgeon dissects a body after death to understand what went wrong, I feel it is important for a UX professional to do the same at the end of every project/ cycle, i.e. to do a Post-Mortem.

I believe that the following are some areas that we could have done better as a team:


Having experience only in UX research before this project was the first Design project that I worked on. Few personal learnings I had from this project were:

  • Novel ideas come last- you need to get the easy solutions out on paper before your mind can look beyond them
  • If you can do affinity mapping which is clear and has minimum conceptual overlaps, you can also design good information architectures
  • Common errors that you have seen participants make during previous usability sessions give you some sense of what not to do in wireframes even when designing a completely different application

Future Scope

Moving forward, we expect that these solutions can be tested in other universities for further refinement. The scope of this application can be further improved by executing the following ideas:

  • The application can be used by other universities as well for managing recyclable waste effectively
  • Integrating the app with other IU applications to ease user discovery
  • Adding additional features such as event reminders, better admin controls, more informative and engaging games

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