" How can we incentivize students and workers at the HvA/UvA to throw their trash in the correct recycling bin in a way that’s clear and effortless? "


Client: HvA Waste Management
Team: MacKayla van Binsbergen, Gabriel Castro, Wendy Plas, Peter Polacsek
Role: Research, Prototyping, Electronics & Arduino, Interaction design
Year: 2019 - 2020

The HvA and UvA are aiming to become more sustainable as Amsterdam moves towards having a circular economy in 2030. However, how exactly trash needs be sorted in order to be recycled remains a confusing topic, and clarifying this process for students and staff is necessary in order for the schools to become more sustainable.

At the HvA and UvA, about 75% of waste produced is incinerated. As students and staff are confused about how to properly sort their trash, they end up putting their waste in the wrong bin, thus contaminating otherwise recyclable waste streams. The schools’ waste is collected and transported to recycling facilities, but, if the stream has become too contaminated, it cannot be recycled and needs to be transported to another facility to be incinerated. This process is expensive, ineffective, and awful for the environment.

Our Investigations

In order to more efficiently manage their waste, the HvA and UvA plan on changing the sorting process and switching to a new collection company that will be able to more efficiently recycle the schools’ waste. We were tasked with clarifying the new sorting process on campus, instructing students and staff how to sort their trash, and showing that the school is taking action towards becoming more sustainable.


We started to investigate how this new sorting system might play out on campus by making our own bins out of cardboard boxes and labeling them according to the new sorting system outlined in our brief, plus and additional bin labeled “Confusion” for all the things people were unsure of how to sort properly. We put these bins in our MDD studio, left them for a week, and then analyzed their contents. During this week, we also ran an experiment in placing colored stickers on the disposable packaging on cafeteria products and matching posters on the cafeteria bins to see if color coding could help clarify the trash sorting process, and asked 10 students to keep a diary of the trash they produced at lunch time, and if and how they sorted it.

Sospeso Sospeso


Through these experiments, we found that:
1. People are most confused on how to sort coffee cups, disposable cutlery, and food packaging, thus these products are the biggest cause of contamination in the other streams
2. Simple labels aren’t enough for people to sort their trash correctly
3. People think they know how to sort their trash, but oftentimes they are mistaken

Encouraging A Collective Effort

After analyzing the results of our research, we found that there is an inherent lack of motivation to sort one’s trash. Most people don’t put too much effort into throwing trash away, and this coupled with poorly labeled bins and a lack of trust that the school actually recycles its trash leads to low effort in sorting correctly. We also found that people who do try to sort their trash tend to do it according to what they think is correct, rather than what the signage on the bin tells them to do. Because of this, we shifted the focus of our project from informing students about how and why to sort their trash, to motivating them to act more sustainably through behavioral change techniques and gamification. Since our research showed that the largest cause of contamination was coffee cups and other food related waste, we directed our solution towards separating food related waste from other waste streams to avoid their contamination.


For our final solution, we drew inspiration from the Italian tradition of Sospeso, in which cafe patrons can pay ahead for coffees that can later be claimed by the less fortunate. In our take on this tradition, we created a smart bin for the disposal of coffee cups and other food related waste that generates a collective reward for the community when trash is sorted correctly. Our prototype informs visitors to the university coffee corner how to sort their used cups and other disposables, counts up how many items have been thrown away, and generates a coupon code for a free coffee for every 100 items that are thrown away. By generating a reward that can be claimed by anyone, the system stimulates the entire community to work together to dispose of food related waste correctly and prevent the contamination of the school’s recyclable waste streams.


This prototype serves as a proof of concept for a smart bin system that could be implemented throughout the university campus in the future. Our prototype & research findings were presented to the HvA waste management committee for their consideration while creating the new waste management system to be implemented in the coming years.