How might we help "canners" be more effective?


Canners go through our trash and pick out cans and bottles for redemption. They do this because they wouldn't be able to get a job in the regular economy otherwise: some can't read or speak English, others are too old, or aren't deemed mentally fit for work. Canners face a large problem: not all containers can be redeemed for money, but it is difficult to tell which are acceptable. We designed Sift, a portable barcode scanner for scanning containers to quickly determine if they are redeemable.


7 weeks

  • User research
  • UX design
  • Physical computing
  • Digital prototyping

Contributed heavily to primary and secondary research, including redemption center visit and interviewing. Built the electronics component of the prototype, as well as the digital experience of desktop sync.


Gahee Kang, Doug Fertig


The Problem

Canners have a difficult job identifying the containers they can collect.

A big part of being a canner is being able to identify and sort the containers you pick out of the trash. This, however, only comes through experience: you have to be rejected by redemption centers multiple times before you finally get the hang of which containers are acceptable.

The frustration can be even greater for many canners who do not speak or read English. They have difficult identifying the type of beverage and the distributor's name within the fineprint on the cans.

"Some canners cannot read English. So they cannot tell perhaps that this coffee can cannot be redeemed for money. They think it is another type of drink."

— Ana Martinez de Luco, the founder of the Brooklyn redemption center Sure We Can

Canners straining under the weight of the heavy glass bottles.


We interviewed canners, redemption center staff, and prototyped multiple iterations of solutions.

We visited Sure We Can, a non-profit redemption center in Brooklyn, and were able to interview both the staff and the canners. This really helped us quickly gain empathy for the canners, and understand the complex system of container redemption.

Mapping the entire system of container distribution and redemption quickly gave us a sense of how many stakeholders were involved.


We iterated first through sketching, then to increasingly higher fidelity prototypes.

We knew there were several problems that canners faced: identifying cans, sorting, and counting them. We spent several weeks sketching and evaluating numerous possible directions.

One idea really stuck with us, and that was a portable scanner for canners to quickly identify whether a can was redeemable or not.

Once we had determined the best form of the scanner, we set about building a functional prototype. We 3D-printed the outer shell, and programmed the device to respond with light and sound the scanned barcodes.


We envisioned Sift as a broader system, beyond being just a handheld device.

More than just a handheld scanner, Sift is a broader platform that includes the canning centers as stakeholders. The distribution of scanners is done through the center. Through an easy-to-use management console and a charging strip, the center tracks their network of scanners, and updates all devices for new containers or changing state rules.

system extension