Plastic Waste Design Solution

A design case study that addresses the problem of single-use plastic and provides an affordable alternative solution.

Project Summary

Facing the global environmental issue caused by single-use plastic, we must figure out a feasible method to increase people’s awareness to choose reusable containers and ban single-use plastic. According to the UN Environment Report (2018), the amount of plastic will exceed the number of fish in the ocean by 2050. Plastic is a harmful material. Its has ingredients which long-lasting that never biodegrades and persists in the environment for centuries. To establish Northeastern University as a role model of a plastic-free campus that creates a positive impact, we took up this challenge that provides a solution that addresses and promotes less plastic usage, thereby giving a better alternative solution for students, staff, and vendors.


  UX Researcher
  UI Design

Type & Timeline

  3 months
  Product Design, User   Research, UI/UX


  Adobe XD, Google Survey,
  Illustrator, Protopie, Adobe   Animator


  Hongze Chen
  Piyush Rai
  Ravi Rao
  Yi Sun

Problem Statement

What is the problem that I'm solving?
32% percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually is left to flow into our oceans, the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. This is expected to increase to two trucks per minute by 2030. There could be more plastic than fish in the world's ocean by that time. A survey conducted by Northeastern University has come across the problem that its student cares about the environment and wants to be good stewards of the earth. To address and solve concerns over the use of 'Single-Use Plastic' on campus, we were hired by northeastern to identify the factor that contributes to continued high volume usage of single-use plastic on campus and has asked for strategies and solutions to reduce overall single-use plastic usage.


What is my end goal?
To prevent our environment from continuously worsening and establish Northeastern University as a sustainability leader and be a role model for being a plastic-free campus that creates a positive impact of using reusable containers instead of single-use plastic ones. To achieve that, we need to have a model that contributes to initiating banning plastics in marketing and social media campaigns. We need to design a solution that serves both vendors and students on campus.


What solution am I providing?
  • Creating a public campaign to increase awareness of single-use plastic's environmental costs and reduce campus usage.
  • Propose a solution through a digital product that addresses the problem.
  • Build a strategy to encourage students, staff, and vendors to participate and collaborate to use the product and help campus be plastic-free.


How am I addressing the problem
My approach was to have a "Design Thinking Process" in each stage of our process to solve the challenge.
What is Design Thinking?
Design Thinking is an iterative method in which we try to comprehend the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine issues to define alternative approaches and solutions that may not be immediately evident with our original level of knowledge. At the same moment, Design Thinking offers a solution-based approach to problem-solving. It's also a way of thinking and operating.


What design process I followed?
Learn about the audience for whom you are designing the end product.
Storyboard Analysis
Before doing our research on the topic, we performed a stakeholder analysis on our project. We categorized them as a primary and secondary stakeholders.
User Research
We researched to understand the problem regarding user perspective profoundly and how much they are aware of the current issue. We conducted three types of research to reach the primary audience and deepen our empathy towards the user.
Contextual Interviews
Our aim with the user was to understand their plastic usage in day-to-day life. Know the level of awareness they have for the problem and what they think is a better solution or replacement for this problem.
  • Concede the behavior, habits, and thoughts of the users on the plastic.
  • In their daily lives, are they making any contributions to banning the usage of plastic-related products or creating classification on their garbage? If not, what are the difficulties?
  • Their reasons for still using single-use products or not using reusable plastic.
  • If they had any opinions and suggestions on banning or reducing plastic usage in their daily course.
Interview Details
We all split ourselves for finding as many students and vendors as possible for the interview process. We carried an interview for a week. We created an individual report on our findings. All of us audio recorded the interviews for our future references.

How many



NEU Campus




18 - 29


20-25 min
Interview Questionnaires
  • Can you walk me through your daily chores? What does your schedule look like daily?
  • What kind of plastic products do you use? Can you name some and talk about how you use them?
  • May I know do you carry any reusable bags with you right now or reusable bottles?
  • Do you make garbage classification in your daily life?
  • Do you know what single-use plastic is or what are the effects of plastic on our environment?
  • What factors do you think of things you can do to minimize plastic use in your day-to-day life?
  • Do you think your university has a proper facility for garbage disposal?​
  • What do you think of a product or a campaign that can help minimize the generation of plastic? Can you enlighten me on how you will use it or what will be your participation be like?
  • If given a choice of being a part of a campaign that can encourage the use of reusable plastic, will you like to be a part of it? Please explain why?
🔈  Listen to some audio recordings of our interviews and know-how we conducted them and collected user responses.
Key Findings
From our interviews, we came across some significant findings and ideas that could implement, and we got more understanding of user's behavior and their pattern with regards to using plastic.
  • User needs a cheaper recyclable plastic bag or paper bag. 
  • They generally don't have any option rather than using plastic.
  • People are aware of how hazardous plastic is and willing to contribute but don't know how?
  • They think that huge companies such as Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Amazon, etc., should use less plastic and promote other alternatives.
Following our user interview, we wanted to meet as many people as possible and have them interviewed. But being in the time-packed schedule for this project, completing more than 20 people was not possible. We thought of leveraging the google forms and passing them in our college chat groups and forums. This led up to more than 50 responses from students and contributed much to our research. The following images show the results that we got from the survey.
Key Findings
Audience often forgets to bring a plastic bag or misplaces them. They generally don't find the plastic bag of perfect size or strong enough to hold the desired substance.
People are willing to positively promote reusable plastics awareness and encourage other peers for any reasonable solution provided by college or government.
Awareness comes from the internet, TV shows, documentaries, and other kinds of stuff.
Are not seeing any possible or affordable alternative of plastic in the current market.
Most used single used plastic is Straws and Food wraps, then leading with grocery bags and so on.
Observational Research
Each team member researched and came with various observations to implement and develop reports on the facts and figures about the plastic waste happening around the world. Here are some mind-boggling facts
Research Facts
According to a U.N. report, 127 countries have implemented some policies regulating plastic bags.
Just ten rivers around the world carry 90% of plastic polluting our ocean.
Plastic is killing more than 1.1 million seabirds and animals every year.
The average person eats 70,000 micro-plastics each year. That is equivalent to one credit card.
Starbucks produces 4 trillion coffee cups each year. Tens of billions of bags of chips are sold each year by Pepsi Co.
While researching all this, I accumulated numerous facts about plastic waste and what is happening worldwide to deal with the problem and prevent it. I managed to get multiple reports and data sets, which led me to make an infographic. I used Tableau to bring my data set and read visualization charts and make sense of it.
View Infographic
Create a point of view based on user needs and insights
Pain Point Analysis
After our research, we had collected a lot of useful resources to define our problem. So we accumulated all our data and formulated "Users Pain-Point Analysis."
  • Creating Awareness isn't enough to tackle such a big problem.
  • There is a massive opportunity in selling bio-degradable and recyclable products, and these need more promotion.
  • Vendor and eateries owner has a more prominent role to play.
  • An alternative option to plastic bottles and coffee cups should be used for creating an initial impact.
  • Charges on reusable products could be minimized or could have different models adopted, such as renting the bags and later returning them.
  • Social Media and Digital Marketing can help this campaign grow on a large scale and contribute effectively to the cause.
After the pain point analysis, we planned on developing a persona of our users. We planned to have two different personas for building our solution around it.​
Primary Persona
John Frank is a coffee shop vendor on campus. He is enthusiastic about protecting the environment, and he is passionate about his job. His goal is to be a role model in minimizing the single-use plastic on-campus and create a positive brand for his business. He intends to help his customers keep a good habit of using reusable containers and positively impact people. John will be disappointed to see customers litter around, use single-use plastic when there are alternatives. He does not like to see the products come with single-use plastic boxes and wrappings, which leaves people no choice. That’s why he wants to make a change in his business. John’s professional skills are in managing a business and designing attractive promotions for his customers. John is also a hardworking and punctual person. His skills and values will help him succeed in a career.
Secondary Persona
Maggie is an inspiring person. She wants to be a positive influencer to her friends and tries to live a healthy lifestyle. However, she found it difficult to insist, and she frequently forgets to take her reusable plastic bags with her when shopping.
We choose a vendor to be a primary persona because our research suggested they play an essential role in single-use plastic usages. Most student interviewees claim they are willing to participate in reducing single-use plastic, but they sometimes don’t have a choice to do so. Many products come with single-use plastic boxes and wraps. Some beverage vendors do not provide good quality reusable bottles. Vendors not only provide services but also may guide customers’ behaviors and habits. We design a secondary persona for a student because students are the main body of the school community. Students have a significant influence on the campus culture, and campus vendors’ success depends significantly on students' popularity. With the help of social media, student organizations, etc., students can make a difference in the campus environment. According to the interviews, all interviewees and respondents to our survey agree to restrict single-use plastic, but most of them claim to frequently forget to bring their reusable bags or bottles when they need them. Our solution is mainly for vendors to make a difference in student customers’ habits and establish good branding. These solutions will be about students, so students’ situation also
needs to be considered.
Goal Analysis
Brainstorm and come up with as many creative solutions as possible.
Think Wrong
We wanted to try a new way of brainstorming ideas. I tried a collaborative exercise called "Think wrong." It facilitates ideas by not thinking about solutions in a conventional way but by being bold and thinking out of the box.
What is this?

In the creative process, designers are victims of their own synaptic connections; subconsciously we’re following predictable pathways to solve problems [whereas] what you would want at the beginning of a design challenge is as many possibilities as you could imagine. 'Thinking wrong' is really about breaking those biases and synaptic pathways to generate a lot of potential solutions before you select and execute one.

Be Bold

Get out


Make stuff

Bet small

Move Fast

What we achieved?
Each of the ideas generated needed to be vetted through the lenses of:
  • Usability - Is it useful? Usable? Is it too far advanced to be adopted? Does it require a mindset shift of the users to use it?
  • Feasibility - Can it be built? With the technology the client has or could build? Is it cost-effective to build?
  • Viability - Can it be sold? Is there a market for it who will buy it? Is the solution in the target business of the client?
Proposed Solution
After many brain storming sessions we came up with the following solution to address the problem.
Reward Application
A mobile application with a reward system that students and employees can download and collect rewards by having their reusable bags and bottles (mugs). The rewards app will encourage people to keep in mind bringing their reusable containers and earn more rewards.
Promotional Stall
Setting up stations around campus that provides University offered reusable cups and mugs on rent to promote the cause. Students can bring their cups, or they can rent them from the station for a minimum fee if they want.
Social Media Campaign
We wanted to take advantage of the social media platforms of Northeastern University to spread out the campaign and increase engagement by creating campaigns such as #REUSENEU / #makeneuplasticfree to share and promote this awareness moment.
In conclusion, contributions from both vendors and customers (students/faculty) and the awareness campaign will create a sustained positive impact and benefit for alleviating plastic usage and its relative pollution. Making Northeastern University a plastic-free campus will accelerate spreading environmentally friendly attitude and encourage more universities and organizations to join the cause. The whole campaign can fulfill the gap of discovering feasible biodegradable plastic alternatives.
Journey Map
The journey map comprises stakeholders, including the vendor and the student, usually experiencing a day dealing with single-use plastic. It includes challenges both vendors and students could face. In the journey map, we first describe the vendor's persona, who wants to be a role model of an environmentally friendly campus business, and we are providing solutions for them. We also mark our vendor and the students' goal. The vendor's purpose is to reduce single-use plastic on campus and have a positive brand name for his business. The main problem with single-use plastic on campus is students have not formed the habit of bringing their bags or bottles, although they would love to contribute to environmental protection. Increasing the incentives of using reusable containers is the student and the vendor’s common goal. To promote students’ awareness of using reusable containers, the vendor set up a rewards system and reusable bags and mugs renting system. Husky cards and other facilities in the school community help vendors manage the renting and returning items. The rewards system that combines mobile apps and social media allows the vendor to build a positive business image. The student’s daily journey may start from forgetting to bring their reusable containers. They rent reusable bags or mugs to join the reward activities — the app and social media events to keep the good habit.
Service Blueprint
We developed our service blueprint, which showcases how the front end and back-end operates and what technologies we could focus on.

On the back end, we design a database system for recording the rewards information, renting items, and student id. It will help us manage the rent-out details to prevent too much loss and provide more useful and exciting rewards for individuals, not restricting store items.

Customer service is responsible for answering questions, redeeming rewards, and organizing the events. Social media is essential for building a positive business brand and gaining students' participation in making the campus plastic-free.
Insight to Vision

Current State

  • Vendors can have a more significant role to play
  • Students and faculty are willing to participate
  • Products come with plastic-like fruit boxes, water bottles, and milk bottles
  • Students are aware of the single-use plastic problem
  • Students want to contribute to the single-use plastic cause
  • Vendors are in charge to limit the use of plastic

Desired State

  • To make NEU a plastic-free university
  • Reward points for bringing your plastic bags
  • Create posters and banners across campus about vendor engagement and reward points
  • Inconvenience solved with plastic bags alternatives.
  • Vendors are in charge to limit the use of plastic
Build a representation of one or more ideas to show it to others
Reframing Vision
We used Reframing as one of the critical parts of our process. In most problem-solving strategies, we create a “problem statement,” which then becomes your focus towards a solution.

But, In our case, we are dealing with multiple stakeholders with different viewpoints, various systems, and established processes. With this traditional and linear approach – problem statements can be quickly forgotten and can give rise to various potential issues. Rather than jumping in to find a solution,  we needed to zoom out a little, re-examine, and prioritize the problems.

This will help us to validate our initial challenges assumptions are still correct. It will help us be on the right track to design and implement a solution
Brainstorming session
Each of the ideas generated needed to be vetted through the lenses of:
  • We need to do more research on the market and establish a business model to estimate how much investment we need to replace single-use plastic with reusable containers. We also need to investigate the reusable products in the market to find good quality alternatives.
  • Cooperation with the school is essential. We need the support of different university services to establish the system of renting and borrowing system. The public reusable bags station needs the school to approve our occupation of space. 
  • To minimize our loss, we want to charge a small amount of money for a deposit, which needs to be approved by the relevant campus management department. We expect to apply for support from the school for the project because it falls under public welfare.
  • We also need to research the maintenance company or department to know about the garbage system and more information on the single-use plastic on campus.
  • We have to seek the support of different student organizations. The participation of student organizations will increase student's awareness of the problem. Communicating with the student organizations in school will help us know more about the student's situation and shopping habits.
We can have a reusable station set up on the campus and then have minimal charges to have students borrowed it for a particular time frame.
Reward Programs to attract students to bring their coffee cups. On getting it for specific times and we can have gift vouchers as rewards.
For active marketing, we can have posters and hang cards around the campus, which can have an awareness message and serve as a reminder for students and faculties.
Having promotional events and let the student post on college social media handles using hashtags such as #makeneuplasticfree
Vendor Perspective
The vendor tells customers using their own cup can have discounts...
...and they use paper straws to replace plastic straws
customer brings their own cup
Customer can download an app to get rewards every time they bring their own cup
Download and register an account
Vendor scans the barcode and counts a check-in. The customer will get free drinks every check-ins
The check-in activity also works in grocery stores.
The cashier is selling reusable bags
The customer forgot to bring the bag she/he bought before.
Vendor introduces the campus public reusable bag station.
You can get a reusable bag after swiping your husky card.
Don't forget to return it time you shop here.
Student Perspective
Post you photo of using reusable bags when shopping to Instagram with #neureuse
...and @ multiple friends which can be optional
Do this five times and you can get a shout out on activity or school public account.
And there will be a yearly clean-up activity to promote reusable material and reduce single-use plastic in campus
Student are looking at the activity poster
Interface Design
Share your prototyped ideas with original users for feedback.
Proposed Process Timeline
Our implementation needed to have a process timeline to consider all the possibilities such as financial structure, budget, application development, marketing strategies, etc.  

We divided process implementation by our target audience. We built a timeline that showcased how we should implement our Vendor plan followed by the marketing campaign.
Stage One
Vendors should charge a  minimal fee on renting the reusable coffee cup. Our target is to encourage students to bring their mugs.
We will have a reward system that would enable the students to participate and collect rewards.
Having affiliated accounts on social media handles of Northeastern University and continuously engages students and student body organizations to make northeastern plastic-free.
Drive this movement by constant efforts and making students aware of being active through their participation.
Stage Two
Vendors will reduce the stock of reusable coffee cups or increase the renting cost of coffee cups.
This decision will depend on the data analytics. We would have more data on engagement through vendors, marketing campaigns,  external surveys, etc., on how effective and efficient our reward participation is.
We assume that the usage of plastic coffee cups and lids will drastically reduce since customers have had developed the habit of bringing their cups to the store. 
Marketing department can have special events such as a cleanliness drive, best out of waste, etc.


What could I have better ?
If I had more time with this project, I would have invested more time building my design's working prototype to do usability testing. This would help me to validate our solution to stakeholders better and would have given us to test our designs. I would also have invested time working with the marketing team to build promotional assets for the campaign. Implementing this project on such a large scale would be a significant investment for the university; hence, I would include the Budget and Planning Committee to validate our thought process.


What did I learn from this project?
I have learned that Design Thinking Process isn't just doing some visual polish to an existing design or coming up with a better usable design. As UX Designers, we should not limit ourselves to finding better solutions; also, we should always try to focus on why we are solving them. Performing Design activities such as "Think wrong," "Reframing Vision," "Stakeholder Analysis," and "Service Blueprint" made me understand that problem solving should always have a human-centered approach to it. Finding a solution for a problem should always come from a desire to understand and feel emphatic about what people want or need. Human-Centered Design tells us to be bold on ideas with keeping usability and feasibility a primary goal. We should not hush to solve a problem through the lens of business but instead, look for a vetted solution that focuses on the target audience's needs and user behaviors.

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