trash to cash: recycling solution

Team: Jiachen Hu, Siqi Wu
(October 2018 - December 2018)

ux research & design, Responsive web/mobile design



My team created a three-pronged responsive, habit-changing solution in the area of Waste Management, specifically cardboard boxes, by designing a service that rewards users for doing what they would normally do—get rid of their cardboard boxes.

We eliminated the choice between recycling and throwing boxes away, and demonstrated value not only for apartment tenants, but for the apartment managers who would participate in our solution, and the waste managers who provide the recycling service.

Concept Video



User Researcher
UX Designer


Guerilla Interviews
Rapid prototyping and Ideation
Parallel Prototyping


Keynote (for animation)


While waste management technology has grown in the past several year, especially with the advent of smart dumpsters, many apartment tenants still lack the motivation to recycle their cardboard boxes properly.

Even if a (conceptually) Smart dumpster can perform the sorting and compression aspects (the most laborious parts of recycling) for the user, we found in our research that most of the users we spoke to recycled less the more often they ordered packages.

4 steps, and it’s already something you do.

4 steps, and it’s already something you do.


Rather than provide technology as a means to an end, we analyzed user habits and the overall service design of Waste Management. As a result, we designed a three-pronged Responsive Web solution that provides incentives for three different stakeholders: tenants, the apartment manager, and the waste management company. With only 4 steps, our solution serves to eliminate choice.

the e-commerce shopper

With a point-based gift card rewards system, the tenant no longer has to ask themselves if it is worth the process of recycling cardboard boxes. Conceptually, this system, which includes a rewards dashboard available on Mobile and Desktop, would be free with the signing of a new apartment lease that supports the type of dumpsters needed for this service.

A solution so good that even ghosts love to use it.

A solution so good that even ghosts love to use it.

Good morning, John.

Good morning, John.

the residential manager

With Trash to Cash, apartment managers and landlords can increase the attractiveness of their property with the added cleanliness of the program. The rewards program itself will also draw many new tenants in, giving them a serious edge in an increasingly competitive market.

the waste management director

As the service provider, the waste management director is able to use the data given by Smart Dumpsters to improve their supply chain logistics by creating fuel-efficient routes for trash pickup, identifying patterns in said routes, and more. The director can also use the Smart Dumpster data for analyzing consumer recycling and purchasing habits, thus opening partnership opportunities for better tenant rewards at a lower cost.

And finally, let’s not forget the most important benefactor of all, especially in such dire times — our Earth.

Check the same website on two screens for extra efficiency.

Check the same website on two screens for extra efficiency.


Ideation & Voting


Ideation is a critical moment for choosing the right solution. We originally were given a broader focus area in Waste Management, and were required to go through a rapid ideation process in order to narrow down our most effective ideas.

In order to do this, we took 10-15 minutes and wrote down every idea we could think of, and especially the bad ones. This was so we could get every idea on the table without the fear of ego. This quick and effective practice is discussed in Michael Michalko’s THINKERTOYS.

We narrowed down to our final idea via a voting process, repeating each voting iteration with less and less options. This is how we finally landed on Cardboard Box Recycling.


secondary research

Through background research, we perceived the main needs of our users:

  1. Users lack knowledge about proper recycling protocol

  2. Folding/breaking boxes is difficult for users
    Some cities (e.g. Charlotte, NC) require the user to cut/tear boxes -- no folding allowed

  3. There are too many box sizes, some don’t match the size of the item

  4. Not enough industry purchasers of cardboard
    Companies are wholly truthful about how environmentally friendly their packaging is

guerrilla research

In order to shape and guide our focus, we found several new INSIGHTS for each type of stakeholder. Examples of each are below:

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  1. Users’ behaviors of discarding boxes vary. It is influenced by multiple factors including local regulation, policies at their apartments and customers’ internal value.

  2. Some users might keep the boxes for future use.

Residential Manager:

  1. Tenants lack the incentives to put boxes into recycle bins

  2. The number of boxes residential management handles fluctuates throughout the year. The peak is the move-in and move-out period.

Waste Managers (Junk Removal):

  1. Junk removal company handles large amount of boxes, and they oftentimes have to do the folding and sorting job if it is not properly handled by tenants.

  2. The financial incentive for the junk removal company to send boxes to recycle center is low.

Shipping Companies (FedEx, Amazon):

  1. Amazon has its own box recycling service at Amazon center.

  2. Most of the packaging materials used by shipping companies are recyclable.  


journey mapping

Using data from our Guerrilla and Secondary Research sessions, we created a Journey Map for all three stakeholders, shown below:

iteration 1

Designed by Jiachen Hu

Designed by Jiachen Hu

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In the next iteration of our Journey Map, we combined all three stakeholders and identified a common pain point.

iteration 2

Designed by team

Designed by team


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Drawing from their research, we created personas for the customer, the service provider and the business owner.

We included goals, roles, context, problems, and core values in each persona for each stakeholder. This process helped us pinpoint the key mindsets and objectives of different stakeholders, which then guided our ideation and design process.


Based on the three personas, we brainstormed more than 20 scenarios that could potentially be developed into storyboards. The scenarios targeted a variety of parties: tenants, waste management company and Amazon. They also echoed back to the pain point that we discovered in previous research: how might we make getting rid of/recycling boxes easier?

In order to test these scenarios out, we created storyboards.


Storyboards & Speed-dating

Iteration 1 (some examples)

We selected three scenarios and built 6 storyboards. In the speed-dating session, we received the following feedback:

  1. For the storyboards about how boxes are “magically” flattened/sorted, our participants were distracted by the detailed depiction of the futuristic solutions and less expressive about their views on their needs.

  2. For storyboards showing boxes handled by Amazon before delivery, many participants expressed the concerns that their goods might not be well protected without the boxes.

iteration 2 (final focus examples)

Our second set of storyboards focused more on how to incentivize tenants to put the cardboard in the right location.

We learned from our users during our Speed-Dating sessions that:

  1. Some hated throwing away cardboard boxes and would love a motivator (fun is one motivator).

  2. Coupons felt cheap and outdated; didn’t motivate users enough as much as a tax return or gift card points. Points in themselves could be a form of instant gratification.

  3. Users would be willing to expend more effort if the reward from one dumpster was better than another.

  4. Receiving a paper receipt vs. a digital solution caused cognitive dissonance -- “I’m recycling, but now I have more paper to deal with.”

Using the insights we garnered from our research and design efforts, we were ready to move towards our final solution.

final solution

the paradox of choice

According to Barry Schwartz, a psychologist who penned “The Paradox of Choice,” having more choice makes it more difficult for one to decide, and to decide well. Using that philosophy, we designed our solution around elimination of choice. We don’t want users to have to decide between Trash or Recycle -- we want the right choice to be immediately, extremely obvious.

screen maps

Based on the results of our speed dating, we selected our design solution: a Trash to Cash reward program. This solution focuses on user incentives to recycle properly so that they would only consider choosing recycling. We then created a screen map of how our proposed solution might work. The site map includes screens for tenants, residential managers and recycle companies.

We then turned these screen maps into wireframes, and the final screens you saw above.



final screens


Residential Manager

Waste Management Director


For our pitch, we prioritized and successfully achieved sharing the problem in an engaging way in under a minute and 30 seconds. We also successfully shared the distribution of responsibility for presentation and fielding Q&A.


This was an overall enjoyable process, which seemed unlikely considering the topic area. The solution itself was almost a surprise to our own team, as we went through the research and iterative design process without really knowing what our actual solution was going to be. We also learned the importance of need focus after we deviated to solution during the speed-dating process. Digging into users’ needs really helped us understand what users wanted and figure out what was the best solution for them.

We believe we identified a real, common pain point many parties encounter, and provided a real incentive. If we were to do this process over again, we would ideally have more time in the research & speed-dating phases to better optimize our solution.