Interactive Kiosk Makes Recycling Fun and Social in Asheville, N.C.

Recycling station uses technology to engage citizens and help the environment.

by / November 4, 2011
A staff member from Asheville’s Office of Sustainability speaks about the interactive features of the new recycling kiosk at the Asheville Civic Center. Photo courtesy of Asheville, N.C. Asheville, N.C.

If you’re sick of reminders about being “green,” or find sorting cans, bottles and newspapers tedious and boring, a new interactive recycling kiosk in Asheville, N.C., may be the cure to your conservation blues.

Launched in September and located in the Asheville Civic Center, the kiosk enables citizens to deposit all their recyclables. But they can also use a touchscreen computer to view informative videos, test their sustainability knowledge with a quiz, and take and share photos of themselves and friends being green.

Developed in tandem by Asheville’s Office of Sustainability and the Asheville-Buncombe (A-B) Technical Community College’s Sustainability Technologies Program, the kiosk was spawned from a contest that sought ways to make recycling more social and enjoyable.

Maggie Ullman, energy coordinator of Asheville’s Office of Sustainability, said she originally thought of a contest to make recycling more interactive after seeing an online video of a staircase transformed into a piano to encourage people to use stairs more often. 

“After seeing that, I was thinking of recycling and how boring [it] is,” Ullman explained. “Not only is it boring, but ... the environmental movement has tried to guilt you into doing it, which is a further negative thing. So we wanted to create something that would make doing the right thing fun.”

Asheville received a grant from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources to fund the recycling project, which ended up being a contest for 15 teams of three to five students from A-B Technical Community College. The requirements were fairly simple: be interactive and fun, sustainably designed and educational.

Ideas that were considered included a “Recyclsaurus” — a recycling can in the shape of a dinosaur where the receptacle was the dinosaur’s mouth — and a claw machine in the vein of a chance game where a user drops the claw into a pile of stuffed animals.

But ultimately the photo booth recycling machine was chosen as the winner. That idea became the recycling kiosk.

Practical Challenges

The idea of combining a photo booth and a recycling area may sound easy, but there were challenges to putting it into production. Chief among them was a lack of industrial design knowledge among the people involved in the project. The participating students were all from environmental studies classes.

“They were thrown in without a lot of the background education base, which I think to some extent made the creativity a lot more flexible because they were coming from a place without all this design knowledge, per se,” Ullman said.

In addition, although the original design was supposed to give users the ability to automatically upload photos from the kiosk to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, Asheville’s IT team nixed the idea during the production phase over security concerns regarding access to the city’s server.

The kiosk still takes pictures, but as of now, it only e-mails them to users. The picture is branded with the city’s sustainability program name, so if someone chooses to share the photo it helps promote both the kiosk and program.

Ullman said that since the kiosk’s debut on Sept. 7, the city has had about 65 photos come through the system. While it may not sound like much, she was pleased with the results, particularly since the Civic Center is under heavy construction and has a light show schedule.

The photos are also the only tracking method the city has of the kiosk’s use, so there could be a lot of people using the recycling, video or quiz functions that Asheville officials don’t know about.

New Business Venture

Ullman deemed the project a local success, and the kiosk belongs to the city. But the idea itself may not remain confined to Asheville for very long.

Bradley Barrett, who Ullman called the lead project manager of the kiosk, has applied for a design patent and is working with A-B Technical Community College’s small business incubator to start his own business based on the kiosk’s design.

Barrett has received two orders from the school to build two more kiosks and at least two more places around the country have expressed interest.

The kiosk cost roughly $7,000 to build, including materials and stipends given to students who did the computer programming and managed the project. Other than the computer screen, the kiosk is made completely from recycled materials.

Ullman said that Barrett is trying to bring the price down to about $5,000 per unit.

Greener Pastures

So what’s in store next for Asheville’s recycling kiosk? Ullman said her office is still interested in making social media an integral part of the device and overcoming the security concerns expressed by the city’s IT staff. The city would also likely partner with Barrett if a second iteration of the kiosk is pursued.

But future development will depend on whether staff is motivated and has the skills to push it forward.

“If we continue taking it further, which is really a function of the new outreach person I hire and if their skill set can support developing it further, we would enhance the social media component of it,” Ullman said. “We haven’t reached the full vision yet.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.