Using Recycling Research Learnings as a Roadmap for Design

I’m Céline. I’m a Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellow for the City of Austin, using human-centered research and design, rapid prototyping and field testing to positively impact city services. I’m on my second project, partnering with Austin Resource Recovery to improve recycling services across Austin.


We’re working to up residents’ recycling game in Austin, Texas.

A multi-disciplinary team of design researchers, a planner, and product manager went into the homes of 52 Austin residents in September and October, talked with them about recycling and observed their disposal behaviors at home. We met residents living all across the city, with different needs and priorities, and with varying backgrounds. We uncovered new possibilities for improving recycling numbers, but more importantly, we established context for why recycling is challenging for Austin residents and how Austin Resource Recovery can use that data to reframe recycling challenges.

Stories from Research

Ariel is 31 years old and has two children. She lives in East Austin and is currently looking for her next job. She recycles a little at home and told us,

“There’s so much stuff to do to remember. [Recycling’s] just not important to me. Money is important to me. It’s kind of a hard thing to think about all the time.”

Ariel has many competing priorities and there’s not much room for her to think about recycling, which we learned is confusing and takes a lot of thought for most residents.

Maggie was the first in her family to graduate from college. We asked Maggie to draw how recycling felt to her. She drew herself with big muscles, later adding that Eye of the Tiger is the song that best describes her experience with recycling.

“[Eye of the Tiger] feels empowering. It’s a power anthem! There is something I can do!”

Maggie’s an all-star recycler and saves items for creative reuse. She recycles because she can, it’s within her power.

José lives in an apartment in South Austin. He told us,

“The theory of recycling makes me feel good, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter.”

José believes that recycling is a good thing but doesn’t see proof of recycling efforts like he could see with creative reuse, and therefore he’s skeptical of whether or not “recycling USA” is really taking waste to be recycled.

Adding, “if I can’t hide one trash can, where can I hide two?” José’s galley kitchen is small and doesn’t have much space for waste receptacles.

Every person we spoke with wanted to do the right thing by their city, their community, or the environment. We learned that recycling feels confusing, hidden, and many people can’t fit it into competing priorities. Dig into our research learnings here.

Our research learnings became the roadmap for choosing which ideas to prototype and test in Austin.

We’re spent just over one month designing and testing multiple diverse solutions then narrowed down to a cohesive set that we’re developing with our Austin Resource Recovery partners:

  1. Household Disposal Sorting Guide: a reliable visual reference tool that shows residents the how, what, and where of Austin household disposal. The main goal is to give residents the confidence that they’re recycling correctly, and ultimately increase recycling and reduce contamination.
  2. Outreach & Assessment Tool: gives Austin Resource Recovery staff and Block Leaders the tools to quickly assess which elements of our framework — knowledge, ability, & motivation–a resident needs help with and provide them with relevant information to address those specific household disposal needs.
  3. Austin Resource Recovery Content Strategy: use research learnings and behavioral personas to create a reliable, shared vision and tool that Austin Resource Recovery teams and partners can refer to when developing content initiatives.

This post focuses on the first and second prototype.


We created a conversation tool for assessing residents’ knowledge, ability, & motivations around recycling, and learned that we can have richer, more two-way conversations with people.

Austin Resource Recovery attends Austin events to meet residents, teach them about compost, recycling, and landfill, and to answer their questions. We tested the assessment tool with children, adults, and families at Austin Energy’s Regional Science Festival and with Austin Zero Waste Block Leaders. The goal of the prototype is to jump-start a conversation and accurately assess the resident’s gaps in recycling knowledge, ability, and motivation. Testing taught us that,

  • residents are comfortable sharing experiences and questions with outreach staff, helping staff to pinpoint which gaps in resident’s recycling knowledge, ability, & motivation;
  • without the outreach tool, staff spends most of their time teaching attendees about compost, recycling, and landfill, which can be exhausting and creates a one-sided conversation;
  • once we identified people’s gaps in knowledge, ability, and motivation, we hit a wall. We needed to return to the studio to flesh out the outreach tool discussion guide and map resources to each area of the framework so we knew what to give residents.

Next Steps

We know the assessment tool works. Next we’re going to make the tool more whole by connecting it to current and potential Austin Resource Recovery programs, visual aids, and games. We’re also building a digital version to work alongside the analog tool.


We tested a game version of our household disposal sorting guide and concluded that playing an interactive game improves recycling knowledge 3 times more than hearing a recycling recycling lecture.

Austin Resource Recovery and partners like Keep Austin Beautiful connect children with recycling and environmental efforts by teaching in their classrooms. We saw an opportunity to test a game version of our Household Disposal Sorting Guide in classrooms which provided some valuable test constraints. We tested the sorting game in middle school classrooms. We set up the usability test across 4 classrooms to test variables:

  1. Students in classrooms A & C play the sorting game, and take home a household disposal sorting guide.
  2. Students in classroom B & D hear a recycling lecture, and take home a household disposal sorting guide.

Student’s scores in classrooms with the sorting game improved by approximately 5 points compared to lecture classroom scores that improved by only 1–2 points.

We were surprised at the difference in scores. We’ll return back to the classrooms for a follow-up survey to test whether the knowledge was retained over time, taking into consideration that classrooms that received the household sorting guide to take home.

Next Steps

We’re sketching a digital version of the sorting game and planning to test new variables in our next round of prototyping.