OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Sort & Shred: Community Sorting and Recycling Pickup Service for Pre-Processing Small Plastics

Community sorting combined with a specialized pickup and shredding service increases small format plastic value and streamlines recycling

Photo of Joshua Morales
1 3

Written by


One of the principal problems highlighted for small format plastic waste has been the material volume that these smaller plastics yield. Individually, products such as cup lids, straws, bottle caps, and tear-off condiment containers have little recycling value due to the sorting required in single-stream recycling models. However, in bulk, these materials can have significant recycling value. With current technologies available locally in many regions, small format plastics could be pre-processed before they arrive at the recycling facility or pellet maker. This can be done using a community-based sorting model in conjunction with a service that is specialized for small format plastics such as straws, lids, bottle caps, tear-off condiment containers, and with R&D investment, sachets and foil lids.

Step 1: Community-based sorting

The service would own bins and collect small format plastics from points of consumption. This would initially include mall food courts, cafeterias, and individual restaurants, where such plastics can be easily standardized (e.g., all straws are made of the same material). It could also be extended to grocery stores, parks, and community centers but may require more logistical efforts to ensure that the sorting is accurate. The collection bins would be tailored for the specific plastic items to help ensure proper sorting. For example, the bin for plastic cup lids would have a rectangular slot large enough to fit a lid but not a cup or a plate; the bin for straws would have small holes large enough to fit the straws but nothing else. This would encourage users to separate the lids from the straws, enabling them to easily deposit them in their respective bins. Thus, the sorting effort is shifted to the consumer, and their individual effort will be relatively minimal. Through behavioral analysis and testing, we determine the best layout and setup for such a sorting operation to maximize participation and minimize negative impact on the consumer experience.

Step 2: Collection and shredding

Collection is not a new concept; however, decoupling small format plastic processing from larger items is. At the time of collection, the collection service can check, weigh, record, shred, and compact (optional) the recycled material on site. This not only allows the service vehicles to hold and transport more material, but it significantly reduces the burden on recycling facilities by preprocessing these otherwise low-value materials, transforming them into valuable recyclable commodities. The concept service would allow for small format plastic items to become their own C2C stream since the processing requires more specialization. With the small format volume concentrated into one place, both plastic pellet manufactures and recycling facilities have more incentive to purchase the volume for re-use or to partner with the proposed service to extend their own capabilities.


There are several ways to encourage consumers and establishments to adopt this new recycling/sorting behavior. First, the bins can be made clear (with a clear liner if necessary), allowing customers to see the efforts of their fellow customers and the establishment workers; this would then influence their individual behavior by a phenomenon known as a “mob mentality.” Second, the establishments (or collection service) can keep track of the accumulated items (either in quantity or weight) and display the total amount of recycled material for that establishment, which in addition to contributing to the mob mentality will also allow consumers to see their impact (i.e., “NUMBER pounds/kilograms of plastic waste saved from our landfills since DATE. That’s enough material to make NUMBER widgets or fill NUMBER dump trucks.”). This can also be automated with sensors. Third, for franchise restaurants or municipalities, they can encourage competition among franchisees or individual establishments by recognizing top recyclers (per month/quarter/year) with awards (which can be displayed on site) or even prizes (e.g., municipality or franchise sponsored special events/parties for customers and staff). Franchise recognitions can also extend regionally or nationally for even more competition. Other incentives could also be implemented based on the community, available funding, etc. The goal of these incentives is not just to get consumers to follow along and participate but also to increase awareness and promote excitement about recycling and its positive effects on the community and the environment.

Geographical context

We chose to address Puerto Rico as our region for several reasons. First and foremost, our company, Isla Innovations, has roots in Puerto Rico. As an island, we have limited resources, and the environmental impact of our linear economy is more apparent and its implications are more imminent than in the Continental United States, where more space is available for waste, and raw materials and products can be trucked in (and waste trucked out) overnight. According to the EPA (Solid Waste in Puerto Rico, 2010), “Puerto Rico residents generate more waste than people living on the mainland, and recycling rates in the Commonwealth are lower. Much of Puerto Rico's solid waste ends up in one of island's 32 landfills, most of which do not comply with Commonwealth and federal landfill requirements.” Puerto Rico relies solely on municipality-controlled landfills for waste disposal, and with over 4 million tons of solid waste generated per year, waste has a significant impact on our economy, our environment, and our lives. In fact, in by 2020, it is expected that there will only be 4 landfills in operation (compared to 32 in 2010). In addition, low landfill tipping fees encourage irresponsible recycling and waste disposal habits, and the lack of appropriate funding streams for waste management infrastructure add to our long-term concerns. With a recycling rate of only 10% (in 2007), our waste management system is dire. (Autoridad de Desperdicious Solidos, Solid Waste Management in Puerto Rico: Realities, Facts and Figures, Feb. 2010)

Company / Organization Name

Isla Innovations


Where are you / your team located?

Washington, DC and Puerto Rico

How does this Idea redesign unrecyclable small format plastic items that often end up as waste?

Individually, products such as cup lids, straws, bottle caps, and tear-off condiment containers have little recycling value due to the sorting required in single-stream recycling models. However, in bulk, these materials can have significant recycling value. By implementing a community-based sorting model combined with a specialized pickup and shredding service, we increase small format plastic value and streamline the recycling process.

Which use cases does your Idea apply to?

Case 2 (bottle caps and tear-off containers), Case 3 (straws and take-away lids), and potentially Case 1 (single-use sachets) and tear-off lids (from Case 2) with further development.

In what geographical context or area does your Idea plan to operate / solve?

We chose to address Puerto Rico due to low recycling rates and limited waste management infrastructure. In addition, Isla Innovations has roots in Puerto Rico.

How do you envision scaling up your Idea?

We plan to initially implement this concept as a pilot program on the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Mayagüez campus and then other UPR campuses, with the intent of scaling for the city of San Juan and throughout the island at franchises, mall food courts, cafeterias, and individual restaurants. Further scaling can be done in the Continental US (and globally) in other urban areas. This way, the model can have proof of concept at a community, city, and region levels before expanding.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.

Please describe how becoming a Top Idea and working with the Think Beyond Plastics Accelerator Program will help to accelerate your solution.

Through the New Plastics Economy Accelerator Program, we can validate the system design and make improvements with the goal to decrease plastics leakage into the environment and retain economic value of plastic in the economy. This includes engaging experts in the recycling industry to understand the constraints around recyclability, public administration to identify potential business structure and incentives, and other innovators who have implemented and studied similar systems in the past.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

This idea was inspired by the crowd-sourcing model that has been very successful in recent years. Additionally, the goal is to address the inefficient sorting issue, which seems to be the main barrier to the recyclability of small-format packaging, while inspiring community-based involvement to increase awareness and enthusiasm about recycling.

Tell us about your work experience

Isla Innovations is an innovation firm comprised of experienced engineers, designers, and business professionals and specializes in sustainability guidance and technology research.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

Isla Innovations is a worker-owned cooperative startup.

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Joshua,

Excited to see you joining this challenge. We noticed your post is currently unpublished. Was this your intention? We'd love to have it be included in the challenge. You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your post. You can also update your post by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top.

We're looking forward to seeing your contribution in this challenge.