How an app can change people recycling habits

Published on 2022-02-25


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Noemi De Santis is the co-founder of Junker: an app that scans product labels and tells you where to throw them away, helping you to sort your waste easily, quickly and above all without mistakes.


Junker comes from the need that every Italian citizen has to make a good way of sorting at home and outside home, at the office, at school everywhere. In Italy, we have this particular strict need because we get fines if we get checked and our waste sorting is not compliant.

So as citizens, we - me and my colleagues IT people - started to look for a solution, a tool to recognize materials, separate them correctly and find the right beam for each material. My colleague Giacomo had an idea and intuition: you could observe that every packaging, every product has a barcode, which is a unique reference for a product. So he started to experiment on it: first looking for a database of products and their barcodes and then adding to this database the correct information about the materials and rules of separation and collecting. It was soon clear to all of us that it was a good idea and we started to classify one by one, each product. Thanks to a friend who works in a supermarket we could start with the first 2000 entries. Then we saw the rules and the constant repetition of the same packaging for the same products, thanks also for a bit of artificial intelligence and the collaboration with Microsoft who gave us access Azure platform - since we were a startup - we could work on enlarging our database, which now includes more than 1 million and a half products from Italian supermarkets.

How Junker works

We made this database accessible through a free app that we called Junker. Thanks to the camera of the smartphone, the app recognises every single product from its barcode, they enter our database in the cloud and give to the user the correct information on how to sort it and which are the correct bin in the municipalities he lives in. When you download Junker, we ask you to geolocate your location to know in which municipality you live so that we can give you the information according to the rules of your municipality.

That's important because we can give the right information but also the right rules of the place that you live in so you do not make mistakes. 

Good waste separation requires cooperation

Junker works because is a smart platform, a collaborative platform, that organizes the interaction on waste sorting between all the subjects in the municipality: the municipality itself, the citizen, the company that collect waste and also with the main entities in Italy that take care of the information or materials, which are the so-called consortiums, like Corepla, Comieco, Cial and so on. Working with their collaboration, we can validate the information we gave to the end-users: so we close the circle. 

We can regulate the interaction on the sorting, on the calendar day of collecting, on the correct bins, on the point of interest for end of life, on the bins outside the home, etc. For example, such as textile that goes in the yellow bins outside the schools in each municipality or bins for exhausted batteries and so on.

It makes it easier for the municipality, for the waste-collecting company and for the users to make a good separate collection.

Reduce costs through recycling

In the beginning, the challenge was the way public administrations, the municipalities, looked at this kind of a product: they were quite doubtful about that new digital tool, nobody knew that our app was different from the other apps of other competitors, thanks to the reading of the barcode.

And so at the beginning, the challenge was very hard indeed, but since the first municipalities started to experiment on us, we made it very cheap to subscribe to our services. The municipalities started calling each other in a sort of word of mouth between public administration. They also talked about the resources, because thanks to Junker if a user uses the app quite constantly you can have very neat and clean second life materials: this means that the municipality has clean second life materials to resell.

In Italy, we have a system of reselling to the consortium the fractions of paper, plastic aluminum and so on. So the municipalities can resell that clean and second-life materials and gain money, which is huge and can help to pay for all the systems.

As soon as the first municipalities could testify that Junker was effective, they started to ask to subscribe to our services, which has meant free advertising for us with the PA. 

We tried to quantify the economic impact of Junker: mixed waste is the most difficult to treat and also the most expensive fraction to treat for a waste company. If you use Junker regularly, you can reduce a lot of your mixed waste bag: the bin is smaller so it means for the municipalities to save a lot of money, which goes from a medium national cost of 53 euros per citizen per year to 18 euros per citizen per year.
If you multiply for the number of citizens of municipalities, you see that the economic impact is huge. So Junker is a very important enabling tool to reach this sort of virtuous circle.

On the other hand, if you do not reduce costs, you also have the risk for the municipality to have a very dirty second life and materials that they cannot resell, so they have to pay even more for mixed waste instead of second life materials, which means they have more costs than savings.

Today we are very proud to announce that we have more than 1,200 municipalities paying to be in our network and to subscribe to our services. They are all over Italy from south to the north and also in the Italian's Switzerland of Canton Ticino. 

Turin: a success case of waste collection 

There are many successful cases and we are proud of all of them because the minimum spreading of Junker in a municipality is about 30% of the households, which is huge for an app of our kind, but I want to talk about Turin, a city of 1 million inhabitants.

We have been in Turin since the end of 2018 and the spreading of Junker has been quick and important. Now just under 100,000 people are using the app in Piedmont's city. 100,000 households that use Junker to separate correctly, to suggest missing products in our database: Turin's citizens proved to be very attentive and very proactive in the use of the app. They made more than 1 million of research in the app and that means that the waste they are separating is clean and surely the municipality and the collecting company are very proud.

Also, we added another language, the Chinese one, inside the app for Turin because the municipalities wanted to be near also to the Chinese community, which is an important part of the city itself. They want that waste is not viewed as a barrier for people who do not speak perfect Italian. 

Differences in perception of waste in countries 

Our goal is to go abroad to other countries in the EU but it's not a language problem: we need municipalities or territorial entities to cooperate with us because we need to have fresh information on calendar rules door to door collections. We need to cooperate strictly with the territorial authorities so it's not possible to go just abroad for Junker.

In the last period, people understood the problem and the importance of being responsible for their waste.

We saw a huge change in Italy: we come from years and years when you just throw out everything you didn't want anymore, but now people understood that they are responsible for how they throw away things and they understood that things have a life, and if you throw them away in a not a proper way, you are going to harm not only your environment but also harm your municipalities that have to collect and sent to a good recycling site.

Times are changing and so are people too. 
We saw with the numbers of the research and suggestions to our app that people are very eager to cooperate with the common goal.

People say that they use junkers before buying a product: they scan the barcode of the product, see if the packaging is more or less recyclable and then decide if to buy or not. It is important because it means that we are more sensitive to the consumer choice we make every day, every time we buy something.

In Europe, it's just the same, but the legislation in Europe it's not ready as we are in Italy. They are now enforcing the legislation that makes fines a sort of incentive: obliges people to sort waste correctly. Now they are also closing landfills and incinerators. 

In Italy we have a sort of 10 years of an advantage over the other countries: maybe that's why Junker was so successful in Italy and have problems reaching outside.

If you think it's strange that Italy is leading the innovation on waste sorting is because in the north of Europe it was common to incinerate to produce energy, or just because they had this technology and they used it. 

In Italy, we have no such luck but we still use landfills, which now are prohibited: we were forced to find the solutions and we found the solution with the recycling and separation of materials and reselling of the second life materials. That's why we are in front of the innovation in Europe and that's why Northern countries - such as the Scandinavian one, the UK and so on - are still looking for a solution if they have to close landfills and close incinerators.

Shortcomings in overall waste management in Italy

There are unfortunately huge gaps. On the materials we are working on, for example, exhausted oils from cooking: in Italy, there are still too few municipalities that collect them separately. Most people put them in the water closet which is bad for the environment and also is very costly to filter and separate. 

We need to work more also on textiles: since this year municipalities are obliged to collect them separately. In many places, they go with the mixed waste which is a huge waste. 

We need to work more on electrical and electronic apparel: not enough people know what they are, how to recycle them and so. We lose a lot of precious materials such as minerals, batteries that can be recycled and instead they go to landfills.

We need to work better on what happens after you recycle at home: collected second life materials go to huge warehouses where they're kept there waiting for companies, industries to ask for them to reuse them. For example, only 19% of recycled plastics are reused to get a second life, to become a pile or another object. 
I think you agree with me that we can do better.

We need support on the policy level.
For example, the European Commission has a very important calendar of appointments to make new laws and we hope It goes faster than the previous years. There's a lot we did, a lot to be done, but hopefully, we are going in the right direction. Europe is the most environmentally conscious continent and is working very actively to change and improve things, we are very lucky to be there. 

The main challenges for an app made (also) for public administration

The first problem is the digital divide and unfortunately, public administration did not grow on that aspect. Sometimes they have huge difficulties in understanding which tools they need and how to use them, not only for Junker but also in a very wide area which goes from digital choices for tax, for environment mobility and so on. 

For example, I see that there are many different offers on the digital market for public administration, but not all answer to specific standards of excellence, security and so on. Certified standards exist, such as AgID - agency for the digital information - and also exist a law, for example, that states that you have to be AgID certified to work for the public administration, but almost nobody takes the certification. We did this because we wanted to be clear, but there are too few digital tools ready to go to the final users that are not certified, which means low quality and low performance.

It reflects on the results and reflects on the public administration, which grows distrust, and for the future, that makes people uncertain of the choices they made. It's a vicious circle and I think this is the main challenge that we have to face

About the author

Noemi De Santis

Founder Junker app: Digital Environmental Labelling for consumer products and geolocalised disposal information for all municipalities