Reducing litter in NSW

Bottles, cans and cartons make up a large proportion of the litter on our streets, beaches and green spaces. Tackling the problem costs NSW millions of dollars every year. Return and Earn is a way for all of us to help solve the litter problem and be rewarded for our efforts.

Our brief was to investigate and understand the key obstacles to the success of the Return and Earn program and look for ways to change people’s attitudes and behaviours to help Return and Earn achieve their goal of reducing the volume of litter in NSW by 40% by 2020. It was an ambitious task, so we chose to focus on the current situation in the Sydney CBD.

My role: UX Designer, UX Researcher, UX Strategist

Methods: heuristic evaluation, competitive analysis, contextual inquiry, survey, interviews, hypothesis development, strategy, sketching

Tools: sticky notes, pen and paper, empathy map, affinity map, Google Forms survey

Duration: 2 week sprint

Team: 3 UX Designers

The problem

It’s not on people’s radars!

Our solution

Make people aware
Make it accessible
Make it easy.

Our process


As a source of inspiration we looked into what other countries were doing well that we might be able to incorporate into our re-design

  • Belgium and Germany try to avoid litter production in the first place and tie their programs to social initiatives like providing a source of income for those less fortunate
  • In Australia, Return and Earn has competitors such as the yellow bin program provided by the City of Sydney that provides households with a mixed recycling bin for accepted recyclable items that are collected and processed.

It's working well in the suburbs, but what about Sydney?

We visited the Return and Earn website to learn more about the program. It was easy to find! It was encouraging to see that over 2 billion bottles and cans have been returned through the scheme. It was most successful in suburban Sydney and regional NSW, but what about Sydney?

Hitting the streets

We were interested to see how the program was doing where we spend most of our time, so we tried to find a machine nearby.

We pulled up the website on our mobile phones to find a machine close by. We tried searching on google maps and the nearest one that showed up was in Granville. That wasn’t nearby, so we went back onto the website and eventually found that the nearest one is in Martin Place.

We wanted to use the machine ourselves to experience it first-hand. It proved to be quite a confusing experience, as there are no instructions, so it took a while to work out what to do. In addition, the machines in the CBD only provide the option of donating your refund to charity, which isn’t consistent with the options provided elsewhere.

We visited the machines several times at different times of day in the hope of observing someone using them. However, we never saw anyone using the machines, which led us to wonder whether there simply weren’t enough bottles and cans to collect in the CBD. It proved to be the contrary!

While we were out looking for Return and Earn machines we also visited some busy food courts at lunch time to observe people’s recycling behaviours. Our first observation was that there was an extraordinary amount of rubbish being used and left empty on tables rather than being disposed of at all. Those who did put their empty bottles in a bin all appeared to use the yellow bins conveniently placed nearby. It was interesting to observe that there were no Return and Earn bins in these extremely busy places.

Surveys and interviews

Having seen first-hand the behaviours that were being exhibited by people who were out and about and busy and also the scarcity of recycling machines available in the CBD, we felt it was time to dig a bit deeper and find out what people were doing to recycle their empty bottles and cans at home, in the workplace and while they were out and about. We also wanted to get an understanding of whether or not people were aware of the service.

We undertook a combination of interviews and a survey, speaking to 17 people who spend a lot of their time in the city to find out about their current recycling behaviours and awareness levels of Return and Earn.

What the busy bees had to say

  • Most people recycle at home or at work
  • Most people are aware of the service but don’t use it
  • People are aware of the 10c deposit, but it’s not enough of an incentive to use the service.


  • People feel they have a responsibility to take care of the environment
  • Return and Earn is too much of a hassle. It’s inconvenient
  • People who use Return and Earn do so because of the incentives
  • There is a general lack of awareness of Return and Earn
  • The Return and Earn machine is confusing to use. Yellow bins are more convenient.

What we found out was that a large amount of litter, including cans and bottles, comes from the Sydney CBD. In order to reach the goal of reducing 40% of litter in Sydney by 2020 and to have an even bigger impact on this issue, it is crucial to encourage participation of this program from people in the City of Sydney.

Who are we designing for?

Our busy CBD archetype the busy bee

Key characteristics
  • They have an on the go lifestyle
  • They work 9 to 5 in the Sydney CBD
  • They are driven by rewards and incentives
  • They typically eat out at lunch time.
Their goals and needs are
  • Convenience
  • Quick and efficient
  • Simplicity.

Using the machines isn't easy!

Pain points and frustrations

  • Frustrating website experience when trying to find the nearest machine
  • Finding the machine difficult and time consuming
  • Not sure how to use the machine
  • Donations only – no refunds
  • Unable to process a bottle, as the machine doesn’t accept glass.

Our solution

We developed three hypotheses from our research that we felt would help guide our solution

  • If we can increase awareness of Return & Earn, users are more likely to consider using the service because currently it’s not on their radar
  • If the machines were more accessible, more people would be able to find and use them. Many people are currently struggling to find the machines nearby
  • If the machines were easier to use, more people might use them.

We developed a multi-pronged solution


  • Develop clear signage
  • Increase the number of machines in the CBD
  • Position the machines strategically in areas of high food and beverage consumption
  • Educate CBD workers through collaboration with corporates.


  • Designed an app to make finding the machines easier.

Ease of use

  • We re-designed the machine interface to make its use quick and easy
  • We included simple, step by step instructions.

Detailed deliverables

Paper prototype

A clickable prototype of an app to help people locate the machines



More machines
Strategic placement of machines
More education with corporates


Develop an app allowing people to locate the machines and track their interaction
Have more machines

Ease of use

Redesign the interface of the machine
Include clear instructions

How are we going to measure the effectiveness of our solution?

  • Are people using the system more in the city?
  • Are we reducing litter from drink containers in the city?

Next steps

Approval/ amendments

  • Client to provide approval on general direction of the proposed solution elements
  • Feedback on any specific amendments
  • Agree timing for next meeting.

Flesh out the details

  • Developing the elements presented in greater detail
  • Additional usability testing before taking further
  • Develop any additional elements that would complete our solution.


  • We spoke to users using different research methodologies to ensure our findings were validated
  • We tested our solution prototypes and various stages of development to get feedback and ensure they were usable

Observing users’ behaviour in situ gave us some clear insights into some of the challenges facing Return and Earn

Involve users early

and often

This project taught me the importance of doing thorough research before starting on the design. Starting with little knowledge of the service, it would be easy to jump straight to the desired solution. It is important to find out as much as possible about the current service and the experience that people currently have to develop an informed solution that gets to the heart of the problem.

Let research inform

your design

One of our most effective approaches was to involve our users at every stage of the process. This enabled us to ensure our solutions were working before refining and producing the next iteration.

Get out there and

research in context

Our audience in the CBD produce a huge amount of waste.
A lot of it isn’t accepted by Return and Earn machines.
Most people use the conveniently located yellow bins.

Finding and using the machine ourselves was a quick way to gain insight into how difficult and confusing the current process is

  • Machines are limited in the CBD and difficult to find
  • There are no instructions on the machines, so working out what to do is difficult and challenging.