Case Study: applying design and behavioural science to recycling

What do you get when you ask 16 year-olds to redesign a landfill bin? How can you motivate 17,000 households to recycle more? The Northern Ireland Innovation Lab wanted to find out. This page covers the design process, evaluation design, and results of two projects, which were informed by user insight, behavioural science, and engagement with local government officials responsible for waste collection and recycling services.

Scoping Work

The Lab started the project by conducting background research including:

  • review of existing research from Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and other recycling organisations
  • research on interventions in other settings
  • review of existing service and information provision in Northern Ireland
  • review of NISRA statistics on waste and recycling in Northern Ireland

User Research

Storyboard The research phase also included a user insights exercise where the Lab went out to speak to citizens and collected their views and opinions on recycling. Storyboards were generated to illustrate examples of some users’ experience.

Personas were developed to describe and communicate the four different types of people who recycle.

Stakeholder Engagement

The Lab used the scoping work and user research as the basis of several facilitated workshops with representatives from central government, Welsh Government, all Northern Ireland (NI) local councils, experts from the NI and UK voluntary sector, industry and academia. Further details including a report of the stakeholder workshop are available.


picture of people in front of a tablePost it notes picture

We took two of the ideas that came out of the workshops, reducing the size of the landfill bin and putting instructional stickers on bins, and developed them further into two projects.

Schools Design Challenge

We partnered with a local organisation which promotes science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) activities within three schools in Northern Ireland to run a design challenge to redesign the landfill bin to encourage recycling.Decorative image The pupils went through a full product design process starting with user insights, technical drawings, and 3D printed prototypes of their designs.

The Schools Challenge – Final Report is available along with additional details of the challenge.

Behavioural science and recycling

The Lab used insights from behavioural science to design an intervention intended to increase motivation to recycle. The design was tested through a quasi-experimental trial. Additional details including the full experimental design and the results of the trial can be found on this page.  


This multi-faceted project brought fresh thinking and ways of working to the department and local councils. The sponsors and stakeholders were also pleased with the involvement of the Innovation Lab and felt that the workshops on behaviour change were particularly beneficial.

One project sponsor gave feedback about the outcomes of the project overall and about the behavioural science-based experiment:

“Although this particular experiment may not have provided statistical proof of success, I believe the engagement with the Innovation Lab was very useful for providing the time and space to have a relook at the department’s and councils’ recycling communications and behavioural change work. The workshops provided opportunities for discussions and engagement, which assisted in building relationships, busting some myths and providing council officers with knowledge to make more confident and bolder decisions. This has contributed to the significant increase to the household waste recycling rate observed over the last year. The deeper understanding of aspects of behavioural change and consideration of novel ideas laid the foundation to allow the department to get a commitment from all councils to run with a common food waste recycling message, which allowed some councils to take a more assertive approach.”

Although the outcome of the trial was not statistically significant, the Lab were able to demonstrate the value of running an experiment rather than simply rolling out a new intervention to see what happens. Having a control group meant we could avoid spending extra time and resource on an intervention that would have ultimately had no effect.

Questions? Comments?








Back to top