UPCYCLE: FLATTENING THE GLOBAL E-WASTE PROBLEM
Electronic waste (E-waste) is now the fastest growing waste stream in the world. The problem is that when electronics are improperly discarded, they are shipped to other countries where wages are low and environmental regulation is nil. The electronics are then incinerated, causing birth defects, brain damage, damaged lungs, which shortens life spans while damaging the environment.
For an Innovation and Strategic Design course at SVA IxD, students were assigned to conduct research around a global issue, frame the problem, and design a viable solution and business strategy. Our instructors, Roger Mader and Criswell Lapin, curated a start-up incubator experience over the semester, critiquing our progress via presentation / live feedback each week. Throughout the course, our team (Ruth Tupe, Shane Strassberg, James Vanié) underwent a deep discovery phase, created prototypes, consulted with numerous industry experts, and participated in a ten-hour hackathon.
With incremental innovation and planned obsolescence being the force that keeps companies competitive and thriving, e-waste is projected to double in some of the world’s most polluted countries by 2020. Companies are willing to be more environmentally responsible, but the adoption a better system will be fundamental to overcome these challenges.
We wanted to explore the monetary and environmental opportunities associated with Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Design, and how companies and customers might benefit from adopting sustainable recycling habits.
I conducted industry and user research, expert interviews/synthesis, strategy, value proposition design, use case design, competitive analysis, product concept design, service concept design, prototypes, needs finding, iterations on solutions, and individual work on the presentation pitches.
We took a multi-disciplinary approach to this global issue, consulting with professionals across multiple industries: Waste Management, Recycling, Customer Experience Design, Innovation Growth Strategy, and Environmental Sustainability.
We team conducted both secondary research and ethnographic research. Using forecasting methods, we made predictions on the future of e-waste and opportunities. We estimated to have dedicated over 100 combined hours to the discovery phase. Given the complexity of the project, we spent the time to understand the multiple systems within the e-waste stream and where they intersect.
User Interviews: During the early phases of the project, we tested our assumptions and learned that most of our target demographic (Tech savvy Adults in NYC, ages 21- 50) are unaware of where their discarded electronics go after they have been discarded. We also learned that most customers do not know where their discarded e-waste goes.
Literature Review: As needed, we referenced numerous studies to drive depth into the new concepts we were learning. Sources include: the University of the United Nations Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability and the University of Toronto.
Expert Interviews: To learn about city and state regulations around e-waste and the viability of NYC's existing sustainability programs, we coordinated meetings with with Industry experts. We gathered that, while city and private recyclers have established programs in NYC, there is still a tremendous disconnect in the relationship between the the everyday consumer and their discarded electronics.
Surveys: We used online surveys to gauge the public perception of e-waste, what types of services people would be willing to pay for, and price point assesment for our proposed service.
During the two sessions, Mark helped us break our business model down to the most simplistic form in order to understand the product value and how it meets customers at their point of need. Mark led two Listening Lab sessions in which non-users were questioned as they underwent hypothetical scenarios. The UpCycle also team posed questions to learn more about what people do when their devices are no longer useful to them.
Co-Creating with Product Design and Social Innovation
Our neighbors (Product Design MFA and Design for Social Innovation MFA) dropped in to help us out for a three-hour workshop. The workshop goals were to:
- Explore new intersections of thinking about e-waste in the world
- Design a product or service that changes the relationship between people and e-waste
Before kicking of the design sprint, the UpCycle team delivered a presentation to get the participants in alignment on:
- Business objectives
- Environmental impacts of e-waste
- Personas and target audience
- User needs
The end result was interesting – we discussed the philosophical connection that people have between the range of products they own. The biggest takeaway was the understanding of the a dichotomy in the way people view their devices vs. other belongings. Once broken, devices are seen as out of date, perceived value diminishes. Other products, such as an old sweater or antique appliance, appreciate in value as time goes on, even if the product is damaged beyond repair. We also explored an app concept that used geo-location to allow users to list their old devices as available for pickup outside of their door.
Iterating with relevant and awesome experts
The Upcycle team scheduled weekly meetings with industry experts to drive depth into our research. As we learned more about the market landscape, we hastily drafted white papers and discussion guides in order to facilitate meaningful conversations with the professionals we reached out to.
One notable conversation with Marisa Adler, Senior Advisor of Strategic Planning at the NYC Department of Sanitation. We learned about the recent e-waste laws that prohibit consumers from disposing of certain types of electronic equipment in landfills, waste-to-energy facilities, in the trash, or at curbside for trash pickup. We also spoke with Jessica Yung, Assistant Project Manager at Electronic Recyclers International, one of the leading private recyclers in NYC. From there, we connected the dots regarding the incentives, and opportunities there are for private companies to create partnerships with the city, state, and other private recyclers.
DESIGN SPRINT I
Validating Our Ideas Via 10-Hour Hackathon
Now that we gained a better understanding of the problem and possible solutions, we entered ProtoHack, the code-free hackathon. Over the ten-hours, we designed an MVP prototype and a pitch deck. Along with 40 other entrepreneurs, we had 90 seconds to pitch our idea to the expert judge panel. We placed fourth overall and received pivotal feedback from the judge panel on our business model.
Our biggest challenge was communicating the customer desirability to the judge panel. A few panel members were not convinced that customers would be willing to pay for the service, even though we validated this assumption with online surveys. Overall the feedback was immensely helpful, as it encouraged us to explore ways to offer our service for free.
DESIGNING A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Attending the C2C symposium
To learn more about how to frame our solution to be in alignment within a circular economy, we heavily referenced two books from William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. It just so happened that the C2C Symposium was weeks away. We applied as conference volunteers and were warmly welcomed to the C2C community for a full schedule of engaging QA sessions, workshops, and expert panel talks.
After the event, we began to think, how might we design a recycling service that is viable for customers, businesses, and the environment? We went back to the drawing board to explore partnerships and ways to recycle old devices, free of charge, and benefit the world from every angle.
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
We took an in depth look at the existing second hand device market landscape. From there, we developed qualitative metrics to audit the leading companies in the second hand device market.
Metrics used were: payments types accepted, delivery method, website UX, and average device buy back value.
This research informed our competitive edge to design a service that offers the highest buy back value, with free pickup, and a seamless booking experience on web and mobile devices.
CONSOLIDATING THE PROBLEM
GOOD RESEARCH INFORMS BETTER DESIGN
Based on the multiple iterations we made on our research findings, we identified the key insights below and started to design based on the user's needs.
After synthesizing all the data from our interviews and key insights, the UpCycle team began organizing the conceptual solutions into use cases. After we iterated on our solutions, we began to design key features and touch points for our product and service.
Identifying COMMUNITY within the Supply Chain
We deconstructed the entire commercial electronics supply chain from raw materials extraction to disposal back into the earth. Turns out that no device is really "thrown out." If devices are not properly recycled, they will eventually cause harm to a person or the environment by ending up in a landfill, or worse, burned.
After considering possible solutions, evaluating viability by creating use cases, we laid out a liner chart of the electronics supply chain to pin point what areas we could apply our personal expertise and gained knowledge over the project duration. It made business sense to position ourselves at the customers point of need, when they are looking for ways to recycle their old devices. This opens up the opportunity for Upcycle to partner with brands and manufactures by:
Creating a business triangle between manufactures and brands. Since the cost of extracted metals are more expensive than recycled metals, there is incentive for manufactures and brands to build relationships with recyclers that collect the most valuable materials.
Using the design principles below, we crafted a viable solution to the growing problem of e-waste.
Free for Customers: Our business model consists of three different streams of revenue: recycling, advertising revenue on website, and the gift card trade-in program. Through this diversification, we are able to provide the pickup service, free of charge.
Convenient: While some companies offered a similar services, the customer's experience was not considered in their product. During our competitive analysis, we gathered the best design practices for a pick up service to build upon.
Meeting customers at their point of need: We are also bridging the gap between customer and recycling by meeting the customer anywhere in New York City. We are making e-waste recycling virtually accessible to everyone in NYC, all with the click of a button.
Rewarding Recycling: When customers use UpCycle to discard their e-waste, the gift card trade-in program offers rewards that promote continued behavior – the reward being a higher dollar amount for trade-in value with competitors that offer a monetary exchange only.
UPCYCLE IN BUSINESS
The UpCycle team presented the video (below) and pitch deck to distinguished professionals and CEOs across different industries. The presentation was well received and feedback overall was extremely positive. Here is a link to our final video.
To a few judges, it seemed that our model should be more focused to one service. Our aim was to develop a business model that has multiple types of innovation that promotes C2C methodologies. The Upcycle team firmly believes that this is the model that recycling companies will have to adopt as extraction for precious metals prices rise along with the purchase rates of the metals.
For presentation purposes, we simplified the start-up costs and projected revenue to a single graphic. With a break-even point before the end of year one, we are convinced that we have designed a highly profitable solution to the e-waste problem.
As business operations and outreach scales upward, we will be able to recycle and process more devices and the recycling stream will grow to match that of the gift card program within the first five years. Our advertising platform on our site will also grow as more users visit our public site to see how much their old devices are worth.
This thought exercise was a fulfilling to be a part of. One of my biggest goals is to merge social enterprise ideas with business. This project offered me the opportunity to prototype a conceptual but viable business, while working some of the most talented and hard working students in my class.
While we may not pursue this idea any further as a group, my awareness of the reality of how we consume and manage the disposal of our devices will stay with me for a lifetime. I am grateful for that.
Tasks: User Research, Competitive Analysis Listening Labs, UX/UI Design, Concept Development
Class: Innovation and Strategy
Team: Ruth Tupe, Shane Strassberg, James Vanié
Time Frame: Three months
• Interview synthesis and recommendations
• Listing lab conclusions and findings
• Competitive Analysis findings
• Wireframe design (mobile/web)
• App concept design
• Website concept design