What We Learned About How Austinites Recycle

I’m Katherine. 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. You can find an introduction to the project here. In this post, I’ll share a high level summary of our research findings.


Four Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows, including myself, partnered with Austin Resource Recovery to unpack why Austin residents struggle to recycle. The City of Austin has a lot of quantitative data about diversion rates, set out rates, waste compositions, etc., and it tells us that the city is below target in meeting its Zero Waste Goals. Given this data, ARR knows what is happening but not why these things are happening. We set out to uncover the why. To learn more about how our qualitative research supports the existing quantitative data, read this blog post by my teammate, Amalie.


To uncover the why, we embarked on four weeks of in-home interviews. We visited 43 homes, talking to 52 residents in total, spanning across all of Austin and covering a diverse mix of socioeconomic backgrounds and communities.

Research activities conducted during in-home interviews.

We went into people’s homes without assumptions and asked them to teach us about recycling–how it worked, how it wasn’t working, and captured key stories and observations. In order to go beyond words, we incorporated different design research activities to gain insight into what they do and how they feel:

  • The Grand Tour activity gives us context into their environment, both indoor and outdoor, and uncovered how space and systems plays a big part in someone’s recycling behaviors.
  • The Mock Dinner activity allowed us to see, in real time, residents’ decision making process about what to recycle and revealed knowledge gaps.
  • The Draw Your Perception activity documented their motivations and/or perceptions regarding recycling.
  • The Reflection Timeline allowed us to understand their daily recycling routines and that goes beyond the home.


Synthesis session to analyze the in-home interviews.

All of the interviews were transcribed onto sticky post-it notes. Each post-it, treated like a data cell in a spreadsheet, was a qualitative data point with a quote, story, or observation. We spent another four weeks analyzing this data:

  • Sorting and clustering post-its
  • Finding themes across multiple interviews
  • Developing insights, opportunity areas, and personas
  • Documenting our research findings

This synthesis process is fascinating and not at all straightforward, but that is for another blog post.

Research Findings

Our research findings contained four main components:

  1. Framework — a model to represent the big picture and reveal relationships among insights.
  2. Insights — a learning, or ‘a-ha’, that is an interesting finding generated from sorting and analyzing quotes and stories.
  3. Opportunity Areas — a transformation of the insight into an actionable statement that helps people generate ideas; we used ‘How Might We’ statements.
  4. Behavioral Personas — a reliable, realistic and simplified representation of the people we interviewed.


A framework developed from the research findings.

This framework was developed from the patterns we saw in people’s behaviors and perceptions. We found that there were three main components that affected a person’s recycling behavior:

  • Motivation: the intrinsic factor(s) that drives people to or to not recycle. We found that almost everybody we talked to identified with at least one of these motivations — Environment, Impact, Social Pressure, and Positive Association.
  • Ability: refers to being able to consider or take part in recycling both physically and mentally. Ability is broken down into Space, Mental Bandwidth, and System.
  • Knowledge: refers to having the necessary information and knowing what to do with that information. Knowledge is broken down into Confusion and Contamination.

Residents need strength in at least two areas to recycle effectively; those who have all three are more likely to be the all-stars or recycling enthusiasts. Our insights were further broken down based on this framework.

Insight and Opportunity Area

Here is an example of one of our insight and opportunity areas.

Quotes to support the insight and opportunity area for “Motivation: Impact.”

Insight: Day after day, life goes on whether you recycle or not. Those who are motivated by impact do not connect their individual recycling actions to the larger community and do not see measurable proof of their actions.

Opportunity Area: How might we connect people’s actions to the bigger picture of Austin recycling?

Behavioral Personas

Example Persona.

This is our “Analyst” persona. Many of our research participants displayed similar characteristics and needs. This persona is thirsty for data and information to convince them that recycling is beneficial to themselves, the environment, or the city. To tie this back to our framework, we mapped each persona’s strength in Ability, Knowledge, and Motivation. This gave us a good overview of where we can make a difference for each persona.

Summary of our five personas.

Learn More

To see the full version of our research findings, including participant videos, visit our project website. There is also a recording of the public presentation on our methods and findings at Austin City Hall.

Next Steps

The next phase of the project involves transforming these findings into solutions. We are using rapid prototyping and testing methods to develop the best possible solutions for Austin Resource Recovery and Austin residents. You can read more about our prototyping process in this blog post by my teammate, Céline.

Stay Tuned

Follow the tag Austin Recycling on Medium for more updates on the DTI Fellows’ Austin Resource Recovery project! If you are an Austin resident, sign up here to be a part of testing on future prototypes.