Recycling bins in New York aren't as easy to find as these Union Square receptacles would lead you to believe. Ianqui Doodle/Flickr

Drop-off locations are tougher to find than they should be, but this app wants to change that.

In the summer of 2014, Kathryn Hurley, the in-house counsel for a tech company, was walking down a street in New York. It was hot; she’d just finished drinking from a plastic water bottle and was casting around for a place to recycle it.

It took her 15 blocks to find one.

That, she thought, was a problem. At around 15 percent, New York City’s recycling rate has been trailing the national average of 34 percent for years. Even before Mayor Bill de Blasio last year introduced what my colleague Tanvi Misra called his “long overdue” plan to reduce commercial waste disposal 90 percent by 2030, the need for the city to step it up in the environmental impact department was apparent.

The app’s intro screen. (Courtesy of
Intellibins)

So apparent, in fact, that the September 2014 Google Glass hackathon was based around a mandate from the New York City Economic Development Corporation to develop an app pointing New York toward becoming a more sustainable society. The experience of trying to recycle that water bottle still fresh in her mind, Hurley, along with three other participants, proposed what would become Intellibins, a mobile database of recycling outposts. Her team won the hackathon.

With Google Glass technology stalling, the founders switched gears and released Intellibins as a mobile app in February of this year. For now, it’s available for iOS 7.0 or later, but an Android version is in the works, says Dhanya Bell, the community manager for Intellibins. While apps like Recyclebank incentivize at-home sustainability practices, Intellibins is the first to address recycling on-the-go, Bell adds.

On the app, you select whatever it is you need to recycle—plastic bottles, newspaper, bubble wrap, plastic utensils—from a drop-down menu on the home screen. It’s possible to select more than one at a time; the app will generate a map speckled with color-coded dots signifying the drop-off locations for each item. (These could be street bins, small merchants, or large chain retailers such as Whole Foods.) For some items, like plastic bottles or paper, recycling locations are plentiful; disposing of other materials, like electronics, requires some schlepping.

Screenshots of the selection menu and map of drop-off locations. (Courtesy of Intellibins)

This is information that’s useful to residents, Bell says, but it’s also something the app’s founders want to bring to the New York City Department of Sanitation as evidence that accessibility needs to be improved if de Blasio’s 90 percent waste reduction goals are to be met. In performing an audit of the DSNY’s list of recycling locations, Bell says the Intellibins team discovered that receptacles are pretty widely available in densely trafficked hubs like Union Square or Times Square, but they’re less frequent in the outer boroughs. Which points to another problem: that recycling options “are just less accessible in the supposedly lower-income areas,” Bell says.

Intellibins aims to overhaul this distribution disparity, and also eventually serve as a catchall for sustainability information for the whole city. Bell says future versions of the app will incorporate an “events” tab that will aggregate initiatives and workshops like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s composting education course. They also hope to create versions of the app for cities across the country.

Recycling and sustainable practices, Bell says, “are secondary behaviors.” They’re still relatively new concepts, and as the dots on the Intellibins maps show, they often feel out of reach. Streamlining the info in a single app, Bell says, will “one day make not recycling as taboo as littering.”

Intellibins app, free at iTunes.

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