Sustain CMU


Sustain CMU is a project addressing waste management issues on CMU's campus. Carnegie Mellon has given their on-campus dining options 100% compostable packaging and intends to start offering compost bins in on-campus housing, but thus far their efforts to encourage correct waste disposal among the students seem to be ineffective. We are trying to come up with a solution that will close the knowledge gap and/or incentivize students to dispose of their waste correctly.


Team Lead: Kelly Wang
Other Members: Erica Fu, Catherine Liu, Julianna Bolivar
Past Members: Megan Lin, Seiji Yang, Apurvaa Anand, Anastasia Raicevic, Alana Wu, Sarah Xi, Michelle Zhang, Shannon Lin, Eric Zhao

Community Partner


Deborah Steinberg (CMU Green Practices)

Spring 2021-Spring 2022

project poster

Human-Centered Design Process


define target problem spaces

How Can We's that define problem spaces to research

The project originally focused on reducing plastic waste, especially in the face of the pandemic.

  • How can we promote the use of reusable PPE on campus during the pandemic, as opposed to single-use?
  • How can we encourage more efficient plastic packaging in CMU dining services?
  • How can we encourage more non-plastic packaging in CMU dining services during the pandemic?
  • How can we spread accurate information about reusable products to CMU students?
  • How can we inform students about proper disposal of PPE?

Initial knowledge and assumptions

  • People/businesses would be open to switching to more sustainable options if they understood its value
  • Reducing and reusing are the most feasible and cost-efficient waste management actions, in comparison to recycling
  • Businesses and restaurants have a strong influence over single-use plastic usage in communities
  • Proper placement of sinks would improve convenience and likelihood of using reusable containers
  • Unnecessary food packaging has potential for modification without intense drawbacks


understand your problem spaces

Empathize with stakeholders through personas or stories

  • Alex is an RA who wants to be a good person and take care of the kids on his floor, but he can't always answer his resident's questions about how to throw away specific items. He knows about the recycling bins in general and how to use them, but sometimes it's hard to tell whether a plastic is actually recyclable. He also wants to cook himself to be sustainable, but doesn't have time to cook, and when his mental health is suffering and things are crazy in his life sustainability is not a concern he can afford to care about.
  • Erica is a sophomore who wants to go along her life as usual, and prefers the convenience of single-use items. She feels guilty that it isn't sustainable, but she often feels apathetic about it because she believes her actions will have minimal effect compared to the actions of governments or large companies. She thinks single-use items aren't that much more convenient than reusable ones in general, but a campus setting is "more public" and she isn't comfortable reusing items that other people used (for hygiene reasons). She is also generally unaware of sustainability initiatives on campus, and finds it hard to compost normally because she lives off-campus.
  • Ellie is a freshman who is just getting used to college life, so sometimes she is too busy or lazy to make environmentally-friendly decisions, though she'll make them if there's signage or if there's outside motivation to avoid single-use items. When asked about recycling or compost on campus, she just knows that the school has bins to separate different kinds of trash, so she assumes CMU recycles and composts but she doesn't really know how to use them. She eats exclusively on-campus, because of the freshman meal plan.
  • Eric is a junior who is knowledgeable of sustainability topics and is intrinsically motivated to be sustainable. He says he doesn't optimize his life around being environmentally-friendly, but if there's a clear dichotomy he'll make the sustainable decision even if it's a bit inconvenient. If he has time to think ahead and prepare, he'll bring his own reusable bags or tupperware to shop/eat outside, but there are times when he doesn't think ahead or he's just too lazy. He also says it's hard to keep motivation up if it seems like others aren't taking sustainability seriously.

Key insights from additional research

We did surveys and interviews with CMU students, and also did interviews with people who were knowledgeable about the topic: students in Sustainable Earth, CMU's environmental coordinator, CMU's chief risk officer, a researcher in CMU's Green Design Institute, a CMU professor who teaches Sustainable Materials, and a CMU professor who does transition design.
On the pandemic:

  • Not much can be changed about safety precautions during the pandemic, as safety is the #1 priority
  • Many plans were interrupted due to the pandemic, but dining will probably return to using compostables and housing will probably try to update their waste system to include compost bins
On the student body:
  • There is a lot of inconsistency in the student body in terms of how much they know how to recycle/compost
  • The biggest factors promoting sustainable decisions seem to be convenience, establishing habits, and learning sustainable practices from RAs
  • Students are generally unaware of campus sustainability initiatives
On changing behavior:
  • Sustainable Earth is currently working on an app to encourage sustainable behaviors by rewarding these actions
  • Before we can judge the tradeoffs people are willing to make, you have to first make sure everyone has the key pieces of information requires to make a decision
  • It's important to understand people are heterogenous and fall into different camps; some people aren't worth trying to persuade and some people don't need persuasion, so you care about targeting the people in the middle
  • If you tell people information they already know, it seems as if you don't care about them specifically
  • Flyers would be most effective if they were seen at the point of making a decision


define your goals and determine your impact

Narrowed down How Can We's to ideate for

Based on the insights we got from the Immerse step, and because campus activity seemed like it would soon return to normal, we decided to focus instead on proper waste management on campus.

  • How can we spread accurate information on correct recycling/composting?
  • How can we persuade people on campus to make the effort to follow recycling/composting guidelines?
  • How can we make people pay close attention to these guidelines, regardless of prior interest in sustainability?
  • How can we communicate recycling/composting guidelines in a consistent way without significantly changing the existing infrastructure?

Specify qualities that would make a solution have successful impact

  • Convince students of the importance of knowing how to correctly sort waste
  • Have students know how to correctly sort waste
  • Make it more convenient to correctly sort waste


generate a variety of solutions for meaningful change

Sketches and process

We came up with a variety of possible design solutions and sorted them based on the amount of effort it would take (lower = less effort, higher = more effort) and whether it focused on increasing knowledge of the issue (to the left) or increasing convenience/motivation (to the right). In addition to improved signage, we came up with ideas like interactive message boards, a weekly "recycling day" for dorms, a composting leaderboard, an "unsure trash" bin, and an educational game.

an image of the project's preliminary ideas or prototypes


make your ideas into tangible projects

Final prototype

We used parallel prototyping to answer three different questions about making recycling and composting signage:

  • In what locations will people be most likely to engage with the information?
  • How do we design posters that attract the attention of onlookers?
  • How do we present information in a way that is easy to process and translate into action?
As a result of testing these questions, we came up with two sets of posters: "surprising facts" posters that target common misconceptions, to be put up in restrooms and elevators, and information posters that serve as a reference tool, to be put up by the waste bins, dining tables, and dining service lines.
Look at the posters we prototyped here!