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How might merchants influence better at-home recycling behaviors, and improve their sales and community standing at the same time?

After several interviews with well-meaning but self-proclaimed average recyclers in NYC, we learned the majority don't "drop off" materials. Most didn’t even know this is an option for plastic bags. This isn’t surprising, considering the uninspiring, hidden drop off points at stores. What if a non-profit, city agency or company provides merchants with materials and knowledge to benefit from a more inviting drop off “Green Zone”? With the right display materials and related merchandise, merchants can increase foot traffic, cross sell product and improve their community image. The program can be tiered based on business size, with the result being more active recyclers visiting the stores, and greater awareness among those who should be.

Photo of Julia Rubinic
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Explain your idea in one sentence

We envision a Green Zone program that provides display materials and strategies to merchants for in store drop off points, creating a mutually beneficial relationship between recyclers who want convenience and merchants who want customers to visit and spend more.
Most devoted recyclers limit their recycling to what they can do in their homes. By its nature, recycling is a solitary activity confined to the household, with few taking advantage of the city-mandated drop off points in local stores for everything from plastic bags to cell phones to batteries.
Reasons cited for this lack of drive include confusion, unpleasant experiences at the stores and even ignorance around the drop off points’ existence. Based on a tour of local stores required to accept recyclable goods, we discovered ugly and confusing displays hidden from view, with little assistance available from employees if questions were asked.
If the drop off experience were better known, easier to deal with and more rewarding, a larger number of people would take advantage of the program. This would lead to more foot traffic at participating stores and, if merchandized correctly, increased sales. It’s clear, however, that merchants aren’t taking advantage of this potential boon to their sales and brand.
A merchant-based “Green Zone” program would help create a mutually beneficial program for merchants and recyclers. A company, non-profit or city agency would work with merchants to better understand how to cross-sell related merchandise, from eco-friendly products to cloth bags. Customers would be made aware of the program in promotional materials and advertising in a manner that helps build the merchant’s image in the community.  The program would supply merchants with customizable display materials and brochures that are attractive and take advantage of the stores’ space. The program could even introduce a cross-merchant loyalty program that allows recyclers to opt in for points, leading to community-based discounts.
We envision a tiered program based on store size and resources, e.g. how much time existing staff has to dedicate to maintenance. Local coffee shops may only want display materials and participation in the loyalty app. Medium-sized retailers or chains may create displays with related products, educational materials and community-oriented promotions such as a “Recycling Hero of the Month”. Big box retailers can sponsor events with recycling-oriented activities, crafts for kids and experts to answer questions. The program would be scalable not only by size, but by location, language and materials dropped off.
By focusing on helping merchants, the program helps build a community spirit around the often-solitary activity of recycling. The extra effort required of dropping off recyclable goods becomes less of a burden for customers and more of a win for merchants. 

Describe how your idea would help form new habits and improve recycling at home

We interviewed NYC residents who considered themselves active recyclers, but felt guilty about not doing more with items that require dropping off. Many didn’t bother but felt badly about it. Others made their best efforts, but struggled with the inconvenience and unpleasantness of existing drop off points. Their apartments contained many corners where they stockpiled batteries, electronics and the ever-present “bag of bags”. All but one didn’t even know plastic bags could be dropped off. Making drop off points more accessible, friendly and easy-to-understand would enable those who already try to recycle more. Knowing they will quickly get rid of their “bag of bags” en route to the subway, or easily dispose of of the “battery box”, will convert laborious behaviors into hassle-free habits. Even more important, those who are on the cusp of using drop off points will have greater exposure to these programs with better displays and increased promotional tactics. It was clear in our interviews that these recyclers needed not only education but also a little push, especially from the community. By creating a pleasant and noticeable environment for dropping off, merchants are also increasing the number of influential touch points to convince the nearly converted to change their habits.

How might you design an early, lightweight experiment to further develop your idea?

Ideally we would conduct interviews with merchants to supplement our discussions with recyclers. The goal of the research would be to understand how they view the drop off programs, how they are currently engaged and where these programs would better overlap with their business objectives. Using the research results, we would prototype a display for a medium-sized business that more effectively uses the space, replete with related products and educational materials. The prototype would be observed both for customer interactions and related sales, and exit interviews would be conducted with those who came into contact with, or bypassed, the “Green Zone”. The prototype would evolve a number of times to gauge reactions and an end-of-month summary would provide relevant sales data. If the program shows signs of success, the prototype could be extended to different store types, locations, sizes and recyclable material. In this manner, we would test the flexibility of the program to adapt to other merchants and communities.

What aspects of your idea could benefit from the input of our OpenIDEO community?

We would love to get input on the following: 1) The overall idea obviously! 2) Feedback from merchants about the challenges and opportunities of drop off points. Is the idea appealing, uninviting or somewhere in-between? What would make it work? 3) We like the idea of an app-driven loyalty program and are open to suggestions about what’s out there that could be leveraged. 4) Any insights gathered regarding behaviors for recycling (or not recycling) at drop off points. 5) Suggestions on what other materials or advice could be supplied to merchants as part of the program.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Shimolee Nahar

Hey Julia and Garry - Great idea. I have been working on a similar idea, and OpenIDEO Team suggested that we could team up. I was wondering if you would like to be part of our team :
Look forward to hearing from you.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Given that collaboration is the name of the game here on OpenIDEO, we'd be stoked if you joined forces!

Photo of Maya König

Love the idea, Julia! It reminds me of Whole Foods' Seafood Sustainability signs that help customers understand which fish are "good, better, best" choices in terms of sustainability. Maybe you've seen them in their stores.

I find these signs are hugely influential in my purchasing choices. I wonder if a green zone would make more sense, or if a similar iconic symboling system could be used on shelves, much like sale item tickets or featured wine descriptions, directly below products. I can imagine product producers would be excited by the shelf flyer/sticker initiative because it would help callout their products and differentiate them from similar products on the same shelf.

A zone is great, too, but might be tricky from an information architecture/user flow perspective? I wonder if it would turn into more of an impulse buy section, in which case perhaps these items make most sense close to the register?

Photo of Allison

Regarding the idea of the loyalty app - I wonder if something like Foursquare might be employed for this purpose, in which people could be engaged and encouraged through the app, and rewarded by the business for bringing in recyclables? Customers could "check in"/get a stamp every time they bring back recyclables, and after a certain number of these, be rewarded with whatever the businesses chooses?

Photo of Garry Waller

Hi Allison,

Cheers for the suggestion! - I think Foursquare has some great potential as it's a good mix of creating rewards and socially engaging people which might help with awareness about this scheme! We'll look into it more and see if it's something that could be applied to this idea.

Thanks again! :)

Photo of Meena Kadri

Lots of great thinking here, guys! We'd love it if you might consider helping people better grasp how this idea could play out by describing some example scenarios which illustrate user journeys through some of the proposed activities you've outlined. Check this example: where a few simple scenarios were created in an attempt to explain the goodness on the idea in a human-centered way. (You can update your post at any time by hitting the Update Entry button up there on the right.)

We also wonder whether there might be a really lightweight way of trying out some of the assumptions here with real people in play (fun fact: we actually tried out the idea of OpenIDEO on Facebook to test some of our assumptions) Here's some tips on prototyping to get you thinking:

Looking forward to seeing this idea grow...

Photo of Garry Waller

Hi Meena,

Thanks for the great suggestions!! We're going to add a few different "scenarios" to our idea that will hopefully give folks a sense of how the concept could work for various types of people that might use it.

The lightweight prototype reference is also a good one so we'll think how we can apply that thinking to this.

Cheers, Garry.

Photo of Doris Rubinic

Excellent idea. They could put the bins near the restrooms and change stations. Kohls has an area to drop off plastic bags in that area (also a customer service area). I applaud you.