iCAN: Recycle and Compost Right!

By Nate Chen, Tiffany Guo, Chae Won Lee, Elizabeth Xiong

The Problem

It is a well-known issue that trash is bad for the environment. We have grown up with constant reminders to “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” but the consequence for not doing so are not immediate, apparent, or individual. As our lives get busier and busier, garbage disposal becomes just a mundane, roughly-informed task, reliant on habits we’ve built upon for years, and without much further thought. But improper garbage disposal does have its negative effects, and they compound: poor trash sorting at the individual level creates sorting issues at waste management plants, which causes landfills to pile up faster, polluting the air and groundwater, and slowly making the Earth less habitable. Our goal is to educate people at the individual level of how to sort their trash, focusing especially on situations where people either don’t know how to dispose of certain trash or don’t have the resources available to, and we believe that a specialized trash can will help in reducing the pressure on landfills and ingraining or improving positive trash disposal habits in people, encouraging them to care for the environment in little ways with big impacts.

Introducing… the iCAN!

Our project is called iCAN, a smart trash can that ensures and teaches correct waste sorting through proactive physical features and a companion app. The physical trash can itself is made up of three compartments for trash, recycling, and compost, and can detect whether or not the user is about to place an item in the correct bin by hovering the item over one of the bins (feedback given via lights, and internally sorting if an item was disposed of in the incorrect bin). The app allows for members of a household to view their sorting statistics, get notifications about improving their habits and receive incentives. All members of a household that use the same iCAN share the same statistics in the app.

Our design supports two tasks. The first is tracking the amount and types of waste generated by a household, and the disposal accuracy (how often iCAN doesn’t need to internally sort thanks to the users’ behavior). The second is preventing incorrect sorting when throwing away waste. Note that besides these main tasks, for each walkthrough below, we are assuming that a household account for the iCAN has successfully been created, and the purchased iCAN has been successfully paired to the device(s) through some other means.

Prototypes, Testing, and Results Galore!

Our design has two main components: the “smart” trash can and a mobile app. The trash can has three separate compartments for recycling, landfill, and compost. When the user hovers the piece of trash over one of the three bins (recycling, landfill, compost), the trash can gives visual feedback: a red light for the incorrect bin (or prototype X), and a green light for the correct bin (prototype checkmark). Each bin has a light attached near its opening. To account for color vision deficiency, the green light flashes once, while the red light flashes three times. This user activity is immediately reflected in the app; if it is open, the user will receive an in-app notification about if they disposed of something correctly, and if not, where it should go instead. These notifications are meant to be small confidence boosters or learning opportunities to iteratively improve a user’s trash disposal habits. Regardless of if the app is active, these results of disposal correctness are aggregated over time, and are displayed to the user in the form of a daily performance log listing the items the user threw away and if they were correctly disposed of, as well as trends over time about the percentage of disposal correctness the user’s household achieved.

One piece of valuable insight was when a user mentioned that daily reports might be too microscopic of a time period to learn anything meaningful from their trash habits, and that they would rather have a report be consistent with how often they throw their trash away (weekly).

For this, we have added a dropdown that lets you select the period of time over which the disposal history report is compiled: daily, weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. These options are freely interchangeable based on how the user wants to view their trash habits. Furthermore, since listing every single item of trash over a longer period of time like a month is not a very efficient way to display information, choosing a longer report period will compact trash items into categories and display the number of items and correctness percentage for each category, which may then be tapped to expand if the user desires.

Another general concern brought up throughout iCAN’s design process was a lack of incentive to actually correctly sort. Though we have the light system, the internal sorting still allows the user to incorrectly sort without motivation to learn from mistakes. For this purpose, we have developed an incentive system where users will earn points called “iTickets” for reaching a certain percentage of correct trash disposal for a certain amount of trash within a week, which can then be exchanged within the app for coupons at local grocery stores and restaurants (see digital mockup).

Our (final) Design Digitized!

Our design (link to digital mockup) supports two primary tasks. The first is tracking the amount, types of waste generated by a household, and the sorting accuracy. This is supported in the designs below; the home page shows the sorting accuracy for each category, and the user can drill down to a category (recycling, general, compost) to see the items and amount in each category. A change from the preliminary design is that we give an option to change the time interval (daily, weekly, monthly) for the user to see their waste habits over a longer period of time.

The second is preventing incorrect sorting when throwing away waste. Our design accomplishes this task in two ways. First, the user is incentivized to sort correctly by getting congratulatory messages when they have a trend of improving their sorting as well as coupons to the local grocery stores. The festive popup is a change we’ve made from the preliminary design.

The design also lets the user know when they’ve sorted correctly or incorrectly by showing these screens immediately after a piece of trash is thrown away.

Our Vision

In our user research, we’ve found that throwing away trash is often tedious and confusing. People often have misconceptions whether something is recyclable, don’t have the right bin available in the first place, and/or generally don’t want to give trash a second thought. The iCAN is a solution to the challenge of throwing away trash in the correct recyclable, compost, or general bin and forming better waste habits in an effortless way, allowing them to take what they learned from using the iCAN to other places. By engaging in motivated learning about how to throw away trash correctly with the iCAN, people will be able throw away trash correctly wherever they go, lowering the cost at trash facilities, reducing waste, and can reduce the amount of landfill and pollution caused by trash. We envision this solution will positively impact individuals and households, but will have positive downstream effects on the waste management systems of cities, limiting the amount of pollutants entering the air and ecosystems. Can we help the environment one correct sort at a time? Everyone can say “I can” with the iCAN!



University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction

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CSE 440 Staff

University of Washington Computer Science, Intro to Human Computer Interaction