This Simple Video Game Shows You How to Sort Your Trash

By Yessenia Funes on at

How many of us are guilty of throwing compostable chopsticks in the trash? Or food-soiled aluminium containers in the recycling? A team of researchers from the University of British Columbia has figured out just the way to help us get it right: a video game.

Sort It Out is a very simple online game that immediately informs users if they’ve, say, incorrectly thrown their mouldy bread in the garbage. (It goes in compost, duh!) If cool visuals and game design are all you’re about, maybe skip out on this one. However, if you’re all for a practical lesson on proper waste management, give it a try. I’m already planning on sending it to my flatmates to help them improve upon our kitchen organisation skills.

Basically, the game gives you four options: food scraps, recyclable containers, paper, and garbage. Then it presents you with different types of waste: a plastic bag, broken glass, or envelopes. You click where it should go, and if you get it right, you’re simply met with a green “Correct!” Otherwise, the game tells you you’re wrong in big red letters while also letting you know where it’s supposed to go.

Here’s the coolest part: The game actually seems to work at changing people’s behaviours, according to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Management a couple weeks ago. After 308 students at the University of British Columbia played the game, the study’s authors monitored their two residential buildings on campus. Another third building was included, too, as the control, so no students from that building played the game.

The team measured all the buildings’ paper and recyclables twice a week and food scraps three times a week. They skipped trash since that shit gets wayyyy too heavy. The team analysed the weight of the waste and the level of contamination, which measures how much scraps are in the wrong place.

The results were pretty encouraging. The food waste bin grew in weight, which signals that more food was being composted. The contamination levels for these bins were also lower than in the building that didn’t play. Recyclable containers didn’t see much of a change, and neither did papers, however. Study author Jiaying Zhao, a psychology professor at the university, said the study would have been stronger with a larger sample size, but the results are still exciting.

After all, UK households produced 23.6 million tonnes of waste in 2016-17. Properly disposing of these won’t just help the environment; it saves cities and counties money they’d otherwise spend on disposal.

Some of this problem could be fixed with small lessons like this game. The study noted that a group of 50 students that played the game got more answers right the second time they played—even after one week when feedback was no longer provided.

“A lack of feedback is the reason why we keep making errors when we sort,” Zhao said.

If only someone could tell us when we’re wrong in real life… if only. Well, Zhao and the rest of the team are working on it. They now have their eyes set on a real-life immediate feedback experiment where waste stations will tell users right away if they’ve disposed of something incorrectly. There’s a device at the university that uses artificial intelligence to monitor items that are thrown into the bins; the team is hoping to tweak it so that it can let people know if they’ve made a mistake.

That’s the plan at least. For now, this game is making its rounds at first-year orientations on the campus. First-year students need to know how to take care of their trash. The game is (unfortunately for the rest of us) modelled off the local city’s policies, but Zhao said government officials can easily modify its code to make it suitable for their local waste policies.

Won’t they hurry up already? I need to teach my flatmates a lesson.

Featured image: Screenshot: Courtesy of University of British Columbia