Illustration of the entrance to a recycling center
City of Boston
Old Paint Cans

Cultivating a Culture of Recycling in Boston

In 2019, the City of Boston issued a report recommending the steps needed for the city to reach its goal of becoming carbon-neutral and climate-ready by 2050. A significant component of that goal is an 80% reduction in waste by 2035. As a part of this effort, the city asked Other Tomorrows to design a Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM) to help divert waste from the landfill and create a catalytic anchor around sustainability.


When it comes to sustainability, Boston has some catching up to do

Today, much of the waste from the city goes to one of the state’s seven incinerators, where it is set ablaze at 2500 degrees, turned to ash, and buried in a landfill. This is not the best way to dispose of many materials. Many can be recycled or composted. Others are hazardous or toxic. Improper disposal is bad for the environment and costs the city more money because they pay to dispose of trash by weight. 

Boston holds five household hazardous waste days throughout the summer, where residents can drop off paint, electronics, textiles, and other items. These limited days account for most of the collection efforts, creating operational strain and making access a challenge for residents. Inequitable access to waste disposal options and uncertainty about how to dispose of waste correctly can leave even the most environmentally-conscious residents choosing what’s easy over what’s right. 

The city engaged Other Tomorrows to design a permanent Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials. The goal was to encourage reuse and divert thousands of pounds of household hazardous waste and other hard-to-recycle items from Boston’s landfills and water systems.

“Other Tomorrows helped us generate support for an ideal drop-off experience for hard-to-recycle materials, supporting our sustainability goals, carving out a space for community, and acting as a catalytic anchor around waste reduction for the city. Their vision helped us get approval to move forward with constructing Boston’s first recycling center, moving the city closer to its zero waste goals.”

-Theresa Savarese, City of Boston client

Photograph of designer conducting a site audit at a recycling center

People want to do the right thing, but the right thing takes a lot of effort.

Nobody is confident about their waste disposal decisions; even the most aware people are not well versed in the do's and don'ts of recycling. They are more concerned with getting rid of the thing, not where it goes after it leaves their sight.

Even well-intentioned people decide how to dispose of the items by balancing their sense of personal responsibility to the environment and the effort to dispose of them correctly. In other words, people will pick the path of least resistance, often putting their items in the trash can, even if they don't belong there.

Convincing people to dispose of their trash correctly is an uphill battle. To understand how to address this behavior change, Other Tomorrows spoke to residents from across the city, recycling experts nationwide, government officials, and community activists. We found the experience would need to foster a sense of responsibility for the environment, be convenient to access, and tangibly impact a culture of sustainability.

Photo of Other Tomorrows team member conducting research in a resident's home

Even the most well intentioned people are going to pick the path of least resistance, often putting their items in the trash can, even if they don't belong there.
Photo of testing stimulus showing a variety of different uses cases on cards for sorting

Building a sense of responsibility for the environment while making sustainability tangible and convenient

Other Tomorrows proposed a two-pronged approach to provide Boston with the necessary access. Our recommendation was to create a central flagship location that serves as a community anchor for zero waste efforts across Boston and a mobile truck that provides access points across the city. This approach improves awareness and creates a more equitable collection system.

Our team detailed the specific design requirements and parameters for the CHaRM and envisioned scenarios that put the design concepts in the context of a resident's day-to-day life. The experience meets people where they are. It invites them into an easy-to-navigate, convenient experience that engages them emotionally to build habits that drive behavior change.

Based on our experience playbook, the city decided to move forward with the vision and engaged our team to help translate the ideal vision onto a possible project site. These visuals helped support the city's socialization effort to garner support and energy around the project.

Isometric diagram of ideal recycling centerHand holding a recycling guideEvent being hosted at the recycling centerIllustration of mobile CHaRM
Project Team