App the ante

To help improve the issue of contaminated recycling among students, Elliott Lancaster created the Utter Rubbish app. As our latest ‘Circular Pioneer’, he tells James Richards what made him tackle this important problem.

Utter Rubbish is an app that connects residents to real-time local recycling information. Its founder, Elliott Lancaster, is currently studying for a PhD in management at Keele University.

‘The idea started life when I did a work placement project at a Staffordshire local council,’ he says. ‘I found the experience fascinating – but I noticed a big problem: contaminated recycling.’

Lancaster discovered that local councils are being fined millions of pounds every year by waste management companies because residents are putting the wrong things into their recycling boxes.

‘I realised the problem stemmed from a lack of communication, especially among student populations and other transient renters,’ he says. ‘Often students come from areas with different recycling policies, so they end up putting items into the sorting box that contaminate the load.’

Lancaster wanted to address this problem and thought that apps – with their appeal among tech-savvy students – could hold the ideal solution. He successfully applied for funding from the National Youth Agency’s ‘Environment Now’ project, and from Keele University.

I realised the problem stemmed from a lack of communication, especially among student populations and other transient renters

‘Keele students came on board to help with creating the app, and also got involved with aspects of marketing to support the launch,’ says Lancaster.

Utter Rubbish provides users with clear communications about recycling and helps to reduce waste by updating residents about local arrangements. ‘The app reminds residents about their recycling times, what goes in each bin, what can be recycled and when,’ explains Lancaster.

Elliott Lancaster, creator of the Utter Rubbish app

The app also has a fly-tipping reporting mechanism so users can notify councils immediately, and problem areas can be identified. It can also be used for information campaigns, says Lancaster.

‘For example, if residents seem to have a recurring problem with a particular material, the app can target that area and counter any “myths” about what can and can’t be recycled.’

For Lancaster, technology is a crucial means of communication in the world of sustainability, particularly for the younger generation. ‘I’ve experienced the shifting attitudes of young people towards this issue. Our generation does really care about the environment, and wants to use technology to help make the right choices.’

Recycling is essential, Lancaster says, because it reduces our carbon footprint and also generates revenue for councils. ‘It’s about making a change in the community on the issue of waste and recycling, which has the power to solve a lot of the problems we face in our resource-hungry society.’

Lancaster has been widely recognised elsewhere for his community work. He was a finalist in the inaugural Chegg Global Student Prize and, in January, was recognised by the UK prime minister’s office as a Point of Light, an outstanding individual volunteer who is making a positive impact in their community. He also lobbies on a range of issues from mental health, sustainability, social enterprise, homelessness and carbon neutrality.

Two councils are now testing the Utter Rubbish app on a pilot basis and Lancaster is hopeful the model can be expanded across the country. ‘It’s been a fantastic experience working with the councils in terms of helping me understand the circular economy, and learning how we can embed sustainability in the community more broadly – even beyond recycling.’

This feature first appeared in the Jan / Feb 2022 issue of Circular

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