scanners for can pickers

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 a portable barcode scanner for scanning containers to quickly determine if they are redeemable.


  • User Research
  • UX Design
  • Physical Computing
  • Digital Prototyping


Primary and secondary research, including redemption center visit and interviewing. Design and build the hardware of the device of the prototype.


7 Weeks


Kohzy Koh
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



We interviewed canner, 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.

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.