Want to Know If You're Recycling Right? Point and Click

A pilot project led by a Tufts student uses QR codes to help people sort out what's trash and what really belongs in the bin
To reduce contamination in recycling bins on the Tufts University campus, student Mia Nixon has launched a pilot project using QR codes to help people sort out what’s trash and what’s recyclable.
“There is a consequence to recycling the wrong item,” says Mia Nixon. “Things that can’t be recycled end up clogging the recycling system.” Photo by Alonso Nichols
April 12, 2021

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Recycling at Tufts is getting a little easier this spring, thanks to an enterprising environmental engineering student.

Mia Nixon, E21, earned a Green Fund award for her project, FlowGreen, which adds QR codes to recycling bins. FlowGreen’s QR codes are being put on more than 700 bins and barrels on the Medford/Somerville campus this spring. Point a smartphone camera app at the QR code and a link, once tapped, will direct users to the website recyclesmartma.org, the Massachusetts hub for what to recycle—and how.

Nixon’s goal is to raise awareness so that people don’t throw things into the bins that can’t be recycled—like bubble wrap or a cup of coffee.

“An entire recycling bin can be contaminated by just a half-full can of soda,” she said. If the contamination is extensive, nothing in a bin—or in the dumpster it’s emptied into—will be recycled.

Nixon’s project is a pilot that she hopes to expand if it’s effective. At Tufts, it’s a welcome addition to other zero-waste efforts, said Kristen Kaufman, recycling and waste reduction coordinator in the Office of Sustainability, where zero-waste challenges are part of ongoing campaigns to raise awareness.

“Tufts is excited to be at the forefront of using QR codes to build understanding about recycling,” she said. The ubiquitous recycling triangle/logo may not always mean an item is recyclable, she added; those triangles just indicate what type of plastic the item is, not whether local recycling plants can process it.  

At Tufts, if the contents of a recycling dumpster are too contaminated—usually more than 25 or 50 percent—it all gets labeled as trash. “That means good recyclables end up going to landfills and incinerators, which release greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change and lead to negative health outcomes for the communities they are located within,” Kaufman said.

The QR code leads people to information about what can be recycled in their area. Photo by Alonso NicholsTufts Now spoke with Nixon to learn more about how her project aims to make Tufts greener. 

Tufts Now: How did you get this idea?

Mia Nixon: It started when I interned at Flowcode, an innovative startup that had an internal competition, where they invited us all to pitch new ways to use the QR code product. Another intern from UPenn, Bhavika Gummadi, and I landed on the idea of something that would increase education and awareness around recycling. Flowcode loved it and provided us with the funding and support to start developing it.

Why did you choose to focus on recycling?

I have always felt a connection to the environment; growing up we spent every vacation visiting national parks. I’ve researched plastic pollution since high school, when I went on research expeditions to the Arctic and to Indonesia. I was working with Marcus Eriksen, cofounder and director of The 5Gyres Institute, collecting real-time data on plastic pollution. That experience opened my eyes to how much our waste is affecting the environment far from where it was made and even thrown out.  

What’s a central problem you want to solve?

There are a lot of inefficiencies with our current recycling system. We found most people want to recycle; they see it an opportunity to be a responsible caretaker of the Earth. But it's hard to know exactly what can be recycled. I'm hoping that FlowGreen is a reminder that it's really important you are aware of what you're recycling. It’s so crucial to scan that code so that you know whether or not what you're putting in that bin is actually recyclable. 

What happens when people don’t recycle properly?  

I hope the code gets across that there is a consequence to recycling the wrong item, that things that can’t be recycled end up clogging the recycling system. If you have a container that has held food or liquid, you have to wash it out. An entire recycling bin can be contaminated by liquid from just a half-full can of soda. We’re also concerned about safety hazards for both custodial staff who handle the bags and for people working at the recycling plants; plastic bags and other contaminants tangle up in the machinery, shut it down, and cost time and money as workers climb in the machinery to pull things out. This kind of knowledge needs to be broadcasted to consumers so they can move from intention to action.

Recycling is complicated because each state has different regulations too, right?

Yes, and those change all the time, which makes the updated website so important. You can search exactly what you're looking for and see what to do and know it’s correct.

Your proposal won Green Fund support, and now your pilot project is getting started. How is it going?  

The Office of Sustainability, Facilities—everyone at Tufts has been so supportive. I'm very excited to be launching it at Tufts because I feel like it's going to go to an audience that is already very interested in helping out. I know Tufts has set a waste-reduction goal and the Office of Sustainability has goals to increase the diversion rate—the percentage of our waste that we divert from landfills and incinerators—and to reduce the contamination rate—the percentage of the recycling stream that is contaminated with non-recyclables.

Both are measures of a sustainability commitment, and I hope my effort will help raise the university’s STARS scores [the Sustainability Tracking Assessment and Rating System overseen by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education] on both public engagement and operations/waste.

How does one measure success?
There are two components we'll be measuring. One is to continue to measure recycling bin contamination. Then we’ll add the QR codes as a data point: they actually generate a lot of data because it tracks the number of scans over a day, over a week, and so on. I’m hoping to compare the number of scans in relation to that contamination rate to understand if there is a correlation, which is the ideal situation, because the project will be a success if our contamination rate is decreasing.

How does this kind of innovative work advance your personal goals? 

Initially, I had this bold goal of being the first person to innovate some sort of low-cost, sustainable alternative to plastic. I didn't have the chemistry background, but, thankfully, many pioneering minds are already finding successful new ways to redesign, reuse, and replace plastics. I continue to advocate improved product design and recovery systems, and just co-authored with Dr. Eriksen and other scientists a research study showing how plastic pollution is leading to the death of camels in the UAE and therefore a significant problem across all of Earth’s environments.

I’m committed to this sustainability journey and creating meaningful, at-scale impact. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to stay open to new opportunities, and that’s what led to FlowGreen. If it works here, I'd love to scale it to other colleges and universities around the Boston area, and then from there expand to other states and eventually the nation. It would be exciting to see it incorporated into the national park system. Everyone that I've spoken to about this project definitely believes that there’s a dire need for it and they would use it if they had the chance.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.