A project about incentivizing people to recycle inorganic waste in NYC’s subway system which I did last semester as a part of New York University’s IDM program under the class Ideation & Prototyping taught by Prof. Benedetta Piantella. The project’s time frame was 5 weeks (November 12-December 10, 2019) and in collaboration with Sai Liu.
Since it was the fourth month in New York by the time I wrote this article, I am still new to the MTA subway system and I am curious to use it as a subject of my research. Based on my observation at Jay Street Metrotech Station, there are highly noticeable things litter around the subway rails and people’s initiative to recycle waste, especially around the R Train halls.
Subway riders are increasing, while the maintenance are dipping and time delays are getting worse. Plastic waste if burn could emit dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals which could cause respiratory ailments and stress human immune systems. Not only human health, this could cause the temperature on the stations overheat which could cause technical problems in the railways.
We are looking for ways how to incentivize people to reduce waste around the station. We thought that people would be incentivized to reduce waste by recycling inorganic waste in exchange of MTA credits as an extrinsic motivation.
A city in Indonesia, Surabaya, has performed something similar to this where people can exchange plastic bottles for a free bus ride. I’m also impressed how they manage the waste. After collecting the waste, labels and bottle caps are removed from the waste and it is auctioned off to recycling companies. Money earned from the auction goes toward running the bus operations and to fund green spaces in the city.
Our main solution is to create a reverse recycling vending machine that exchanges plastic waste into MTA credits. There are numerous train systems from UK, China, & Singapore that have reverse recycling vending machines which incentivize people to recycle waste in train stations. A friend of mine saw one reverse recycling vending machines in a supermarket in Brooklyn close to his apartment. I’ve never seen one in New York, and apparently the current state of these machines are inaccessible due to their availability in limited locations. It seems ironic how New York, the biggest railway system on earth, doesn’t have this facility.
We wonder if this would work in a more urban setting in New York where plastic waste is more prevalent compared to Surabaya. Although greedy governors and mayors keep cutting off the subway’s budget for their own needs, this solution could make the subway system to be self sustainable regardless of robbed funding.
We created a stakeholder map which illustrates how the stakeholders interact with the system.
We realized that if we only use data from NYU students, the survey data would be very similar and it will be incomplete if we don’t involve people from outside NYU. We were about to find participants in the Jay street station for the research, but we realized that it’ll be difficult to find willing participants among the large crowds in the subway halls. We decided to create a survey instead. We created a Google Forms page and posted it on Reddit under the subreddit r/SampleSize & r/AskNYC.
- “Do you recycle and why?”
- “Have you ever seen or used a reverse vending machine in New York? If yes, give example of where you see one”
- “In your own words, why do people litter in subway stations?”
- “If reverse vending machines exist in subway stations, would you be interested in exchanging waste for MTA credits? (Yes/No/Maybe)”
- “Do you think people would recycle their waste if reverse vending machines exist in subway stations? Explain why.”
To see what respondents think about what other people would behave if people are extrinsically more motivated to recycle when they get MTA credits in exchange.
We got 7 answers from anonymous New Yorkers from the subreddits. Results:
All of the respondents recycle and some of them try their best to recycle because they want to save the environment as well.
One respondent mentioned the lack of garbage cans in the subway stations. People are lazy and there is no social contract to keep the stations clean.
5 people have never seen one in New York. 2 people have seen them in supermarket near their homes. This means that these reverse vending machines are not easily accessible to New Yorkers in general.
Respondents are mainly interested to use the facility. Some of them might be interested to try the facility.
Sims Municipal Recycling Interview
We reached out to Sims Municipal Recycling to ask them some questions about the recycling process in New York.
In New York City, household recyclables are picked up curbside, once a week by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). After being tossed in the back of the diesel-fueled truck, each load makes its way to New York City’s Material Recovery Facility, or MRF, which is operated by Sims Municipal Recycling, a company owned by Sims Metal Management.
Although this type of facility is commonly referred to as a recycling plant, it only handles part of the recycling process. Instead, it sorts, recovers, and discards. A MRF sifts through recyclables to recover items that can be resold in the post-consumer (the recycling industry’s term for items thrown away by consumers) commodities markets. In this case, the materials sifted include glass, metal, cartons and some plastics. It discards the rest.
New York City pays Sims approximately $70 to $75 per ton to take the recyclables. Sims, in turn, pays the city a percentage of sales based on monthly national rates.
Before the materials are shipped to re-processors up and down the East Coast and to Canada, they’re shaped into 1,000-pound bales.
At their next facility, materials will be broken into flakes, cleaned and turned into pellets or blank-slate material. Recycled plastic bottle flakes (rPET) will be shipped to manufacturers in the U.S., China and beyond, where it will be used to make carpets or polyester fabric — even teddy-bear stuffing. Making a new bottle, however, is slightly more complicated. The plastic flakes must be sterilized and tested to meet food-grade standards. This means plastic flakes are melted, extruded as ribbons of liquid plastic, and shaped into smooth rice-grain-sized pieces. These tiny pellets will be sold to a manufacturer as raw materials for take-away food containers and, of course, plastic bottles.
This is our first design just to test if people could be incentivized with a reward of a free one-way ride. We wanted to test how people would be incentivized by combining 2 methods, performance-based research and Wizard of Oz technique. Since we couldn’t find any foldable tables at the time, we only used a bag to put the recycled items accompanied with a small sign.
- Not many people carried things to be recycled
- Not many people paid attention to the “recycle area”, they seems very busy during lunchtime (11 AM)
- A person put the garbage into the trash can instead of the “recycle area”
- 2 people stopped by and exchanged their plastic bottles with the
- One said the government should clean the subway station first so that more people will know the place is not allowed to throw trash.
- One mentioned in their country (Germany), they have recycle systems for bottles and cans. You can exchange money with bottles from vending machines.
- We didn’t have real recycle machines to attract people, the bag doesn’t look convincing enough.
- We don’t have table and a nice poster to attract people and make us looks formal
- People were too busy to pay attention to the “recycle area” during lunch time (11:00 PM)
We decided to pick another approach which looks more like the vending machine for next week.
Before we start building the mock vending machine, we decided to create the user interaction. We performed a brief user interaction test in class where we used hand-drawn interfaces on the iPad and we used a box of cookies as the trash can to simulate how the machine would work.
1. Press the Start button
2. Insert MTA Card to the slot
3. Put the bottles into the machine to gain credits. When finished, press the Finish button
4. Remove MTA Card from the slot
5. Finish screen, then automatically goes back to the main screen
Based on 6 people user testing in class, we determined that:
- They bring plastic bottle, coffee cups, food containers everyday
- They are interested to use this facility
- They want more clear information about gained credits and the economic value of recycled trash
- They want to know the impact of their behavior rather than telling them how much credits they’ve got (e.g. the interface can show how many trees they save by recycling bottles)
- More people like the idea of putting the MTA Card to start the machine because they don’t want to waste time in pressing the start button in the homepage.
We built the mock vending machine using recycled cardboard boxes and an iPad for the user interface display.
We also redesigned the user interface in and designed it on Sketch. To save more time, we removed the button to start and instead users can simply put the Metro card to activate the machine. Also at the end of the process, we added how much energy is saved by recycling a plastic bottle. This also proved that not users not only receive physical material rewards, but also psychological rewards which made them feel they have accomplished something.
1. Insert MTA Card to start
2. Place bottles into the machine
3. When finished, press the Finish button
4. Receive MTA Card with updated credits
From our 45 minute on-site research in Jay Street Metrotech Station from around 12:00 PM. We stood for 45 minutes in Jay Street Metrotech Station from 2:00 PM, 8 people stopped by and interacted with the system. They fully interacted with it from entering the MTA Card until placing the recyclable trash in the vending machine. Most of the testers noticed the message at the end and they said they learned how much they saved energy. We noticed that people bring water bottles, plastic cups, and food containers.
For finalization, we recreated the mock vending machine using a bigger starting cardboard box, as well as including a 3D render of the prototype.
We have tested the prototypes and the system appears to be able to incentivize people to recycle waste to be exchanged into MTA credits, even though more testing sessions are required before the facility is built.
The research was difficult to perform because we had to monitor how people interact with the system while being present in the station with a good prototype that can convince people that the system exists in the station. This assignment was interesting because we learned a lot of new things, both how New York recycles their waste and how we can perform numerous different research methods that we’ve never used before.
The system works great in theory, but money politics and reality seems to be not in the project’s favor. We tried reaching out to Sims for an additional interview and they have never collaborated with MTA before because MTA has their own waste carter but they don’t process recycled waste like Sims do. A good collaboration must be established between MTA & Sims beforehand. Hopefully they could find an agreement where the system could be implemented in the future.
Although it needs further research to be fully implemented in MTA’s transportation system in New York, the system can still be implemented for other transportation facilities around the world. Jakarta’s recent MRT system could use this as an initiative to reduce and recycle inorganic waste around the city.