Zero Waste Case Study

A study on our landfill crisis and how to help improve recycling program usage.

Kellie Wright
Apr 8, 2017 · 12 min read

This is a case study written for a part-time UX course at RED Academy that I enrolled in to help expand my UX knowledge. My main goal was to improve the work I do every day as an Art Director and freelancer. I chose to focus my project on the topic of sustainability within Toronto and the GTA, specifically waste disposal and the landfill crisis.


I am quite passionate about doing as much as possible to help fix the issues we have arising with our environment. One of these big issues is overflowing landfills which are leaking into oceans, causing harm to animals, taking up needed land mass… the list goes on.

I began considering the struggles I have on a day-to-day basis with garbage disposal and recycling, as well as the issues I have with my own apartment building’s set-up and involvement with the city’s available programs. There came my goal to start digging deeper into this issue to find out what problems others were having, and if they cared about it as much as I do.


It’s not news that North America has an on-going waste overload issue, but do we really understand the effect that this is having on our planet?
Here are some facts to get you thinking:
Landfills produce about 25% of Canada’s methane emissions.
Canadian households produced 14.3 million tonnes of waste in 2012, an increase of 27% since 2002.
Nearly three-quarters (73%) of this waste was sent to landfills.

A major result is something called The Great Pacific Garbage patch, which has grown to be about the size of the state of Texas. What is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch? It’s a mess of trash and plastic that moves around the north Pacific Ocean. The amount of debris accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces, not visible to the naked eye.

About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia.

Wildlife and habitats that are directly affected by the overflowing landfills and Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Micro-plastics make up the majority of this patch, which is the heart of this problem. Those plastics could have easily been recycled — instead they went into the trash and will now take hundreds of years to break down. That’s right, hundreds of years. Normally, plastic items can take up to 1000 years to decompose in landfills. But plastic bags we use in our everyday life take 10–1000 years to decompose, while plastic bottles can take 450 years or more.

So what can we do about this?
Well, according to Catherine Daniels, Manager of Business Operations and Change Initiatives in the City of Toronto, our recycling program has a 96% usage rate. She says “most of the stuff you dispose of is not garbage, it is recyclable.”

What this means is that we already have almost the entire Toronto population on board with recycling but that participants are not using the programs to its fullest. Results from my interviews and surveys showed that many people are unaware of how many things can actually be recycled and how to dispose of them properly.


What are your waste management habits?
“I only recycle because my building doesn’t offer a compost service.”
“I recycle on a regular basis and use compost a bit, but mostly because my family does.”
“I recycle as much as I can but sometimes the city doesn’t pick up my bin and I have no idea why so it’s very frustrating.”
“I can only recycle because that’s all my apartment building offers, but I would love to be able to compost as well because a lot of my waste is produce.”

Do you feel like you know what can and can’t be recycled?
“Kind of. I feel like there’s a lot of constraints and probably a lot of things that have changed but it’s not very easy to access that information. So I mostly throw things in the garbage when I’m not sure.”
“Yes I think I do but I have no way of actually knowing that without digging through those awful government websites and it’s a pain to find the information.”

Have you ever used an app to help with your waste management?
“No, never. I didn’t even think there would be anything like that out there.”
“No, I haven’t but I would love something that I could use to quickly figure out where my things should go, that would also show me my pickup schedule.”
“No, but I think it would be really handy if I could just look up whatever item I’m throwing away and figure out what to do with it on the fly.”

Did you know that you are supposed to use a plastic bag for your compostable items?
“What?! No… are you sure? I buy these biodegradable ‘compost’ bags at the grocery store.”
“I use biodegradeable bags for my compost that say ‘compost bags’ right on them. Are you sure about that?”
“Really? Why would you have to use a plastic bag vs. biodegradable? Seems counter-intuitive.”

Survey Responses
of respondents used recycling 3 times a week or more
of those people do it because it helps the environment
do it because they don’t like waste
of respondents guess or just throw an item in the garbage when they aren’t sure where it’s supposed to go

Respondents rated their concern about the environment very highly


In doing research on apps in the industry that may help with this problem I mostly came across games to help promote awareness about the benefits of recycling and compost. Some other apps I found included features such as helping you find the nearest drop-off depots, an award system for users, games to help teach how to dispose of items, or information on how to reuse items. There didn’t seem to be anything with the specific goal of finding an item quickly and determining how to dispose of it.

There was an app called Hfx Recycles that is very similar to this idea, but is for Halifax, Nova Scotia residents only. It allows a user to search for an item, gives pickup schedules for your address, allows you to report issues, and gives you notifications and updates. This app has a lot of the features that I found would be beneficial in speaking to my interviewees, but felt that it was a bit of an information overload and could be organized better.


App Goal: Give people easier, convenient access to the information they need about recycling and composting items.

Feature List
Quick item search
Alphabetized item list
Categorized data
GPS locator for drop off depots
Link to navigation app

Nice to Haves:
Quick Tips (how to reduce waste)
Ability to give notifications
Item pick up service
Pickup schedules
Calendar syncing
Basic user profile

Do Not Needs:
FAQ search
Save items
Set reminders
User login

This features list changed many times throughout my user-testing and wireframe iteration process as I began eliminating features and information that seemed to clutter the app. I put more functions in the ‘Nice to Have’ section with the intention of having a second iteration after the app launch where some of these features are added on and tested.

Below is the first version of the userflow based on an earlier features list. This is what the prototyping started with.

First version of the userflow/sitemap hybrid


Below are my original paper prototypes, with one change from the initial 3 user tests completed.

The Change: I had an idea that the user should be able to select whether a product was for ‘reuse’ or ‘recycle’ purposes when they used the main search function based on the interest my interviewees had in reusing their compost or recycled items. This option confused all three of my first test users and stopped them from going any further. The function was eliminated immediately and is reflected in the prototypes below.

Original Paper Prototypes


Test search item function setup ease-of-use
Test whether anyone tries to use other options in the menu
Test whether Save Items function works well
Test Schedules function for any missing options

You’re about to throw an item in the garbage but you suddenly wonder whether it’s recyclable. You’re using the app to find out. You can use any of the navigation options to go through the app.

Searching for an item was clear and simple for users, but they wanted to know before they even got to the item page whether an item was recyclable, compostable, or garbage. Because some items are so small users didn’t need or want to go to the item details page. For larger, more complicated items, a couple of users suggested a reminder function to remind them to take their waste out the next day.

Users were very clear on what the Save Item function did and thought it was easy to use. However, none thought it was relevant because it would take just as much time to re-search the item as it would to go through saved ones.

The only option in the navigation that users clicked was Schedules, and only because they didn’t know what else to do after they searched for their item. Most of my target demo didn’t need this option because they live in high-rise buildings but they all thought it was very clear and easy to use. They also really liked that they could sync the schedule with their phone calendar to get notifications.

Users were confused about the Quick Tips section and didn’t know what the FAQ was for. One user said, “Is this FAQ for the app to tell me how to do things?”


These are prototypes based on the changes from the first round of usability testing. Features that were changed based on testing results include:
- Removal of the Save Items function
- Removal of the FAQ option
- Removal of Quick Tips due to interest level
- Addition of a spot for disposal icons beside each item on the search page
- A reminder function for more complicated items


Test whether ‘search’ is a clear navigation option
Test whether users would want the reminder feature
Test whether users would want to use the pickup service
Test how effective the information flow is for more complicated items

You’re doing some decluttering and came across a battery from an old gaming system that has been sitting in your apartment for months. You are using the app to figure out how to go getting rid of this as soon as possible.

Found that users thought searching for an item was easy, but the letter navigation on the side was unnecessary and distracted users from what they were trying to accomplish. When on the search page one user mentioned, “I’m not actually sure what ‘Search’ means in the bottom there. Is that where I’m supposed to be?”

The Set a Reminder function on the item details page was very confusing for users. They did not understand what it was for, and when it was explained they didn’t think they would ever want to use it. “It’s very pushy,” said one user. Another user said, “I don’t know why I would need this if I’m using the app to get rid of this item now.”

One user expected to be shown something before they were taken right to the search page. Such as, facts about recycling and waste processes as part of on boarding to explain the different icons and types of waste.

“I don’t know what Find a Location is going to do. Is it for drop off depots?” This user liked the function but didn’t think the language was clear enough.

Users wanted the app to find the drop off location that was closest to them rather than just showing a generic list. They also thought the locations should tell them more details, like the depot hours.

One user suggested, “I think it would be way better if I could use my camera to take photo of the item and the app recognized what it is, instead of having to go through a list.”

One user on the pickup feature says, “I think the pick up feature would be great if I had a big item that I didn’t want to take all the way to the drop off depot. But I probably wouldn’t want to pay much for it.”


At this point so much had changed in the app that I had to go back and re-create a userflow that focused only on item searching and the process of getting rid of that item.

Below are mid to high-fidelity prototypes with changes based on the second round of usability testing and the new userflow.
Features that were changed include:
- Removal of Schedules for a later iteration based on target audience
- Addition of categorical selections on the search page
- Addition of a location details page
- Change in navigation to go with the flow of the user and focus more on the item disposal from beginning to end
- Addition of basic profile where user can change their location and notification settings

Working Prototype:


Test whether the iconized categories are more helpful to the user than just a search functionality and determine whether they need both.
Test the pickup function to determine at which point it should be added into the userflow or whether users would really need it.
Test whether the Dropoff Depots page is clear and intuitive by checking that users click on a location if they want to go to the next step.
Test whether Call Dropoff Depot is a function that users want or need.

You’re doing some decluttering and came across a battery from an old gaming system that has been sitting in your apartment for months. You are using the app to figure out how to go getting rid of this as soon as possible.

After clicking ‘Find a Dropoff Depot’ a user questioned the functionality saying, “How do you know where my nearest location is? Don’t I need an account or a ‘confirm my location’ option?.” This was missing from the beginning of the process. Another user said, “I love that the location closest to me is so big. I think that’s very clear.”

This round of testing is still going.


This was a long process that resulted in many iterations, due to continuously testing the prototypes and making changes based on the users’ needs. I began with research on the problem of waste disposal, then dove into competitive research. From there I tried to really focus the problem I was trying to solve, and came up with interview and survey questions. In the future I would conduct more interviews initially and then send more focused surveys after the fact with questions based on my survey feedback.

I then began creating paper prototypes and started testing them on users. The feedback got implemented on low-fidelity digital wireframes, which I began testing as well. I got stuck in this phase for longer than necessary because I started making changes based on only a couple of tests. This resulted in features being added or removed prematurely, and in-turn, added to changes on the next iterations, putting the process in a bit of a never-ending cycle. Once I realized this I pushed my wireframes forward into mid-fidelity based on the consistent feedback rather than the small details. Below is the most recent version of the prototype.


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