Service Design - Systems Design - Participatory Design

A Waste Management Educational Toolkit for Children and Adults

In May of 2019, I was one of sixteen undergraduate design students who got to work with the residents of El Cocal, a small informal community located next to the town of Quepos, Costa Rica. Working with key residents in El Cocal, we co-designed a comprehensive waste management solution that would fulfill the community's goal to protect their environment and share its beauty with residents and visitors. We also worked collaboratively with GVI, an organization that has had staff and volunteers active in the El Cocal community since 2011, who have built a community centre with outreach programs for the community, such as childhood education and teaching English. Using the participatory design process, my peers and I got to engage in systems thinking to develop a robust solution, including my contribution, the El Cocal Waste Management Educational Toolkit, in order to create a system that can be implemented and sustained by the community.

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El Cocal is home to over 800 households and several businesses and has a beautiful, undeveloped stretch of beaches. Though the area is adjacent to Quepos, a mangrove forest and small water inlet separates El Cocal from the town. An informal ferry service owned by locals brings residents and visitors back and forth between the mainland and El Cocal, which is about a two minute ride. Though the geographical separation is small, the political and socio-economic differences between Quepos and El Cocal are significant. El Cocal does not benefit from municipal services and thus is lacking key infrastructure. There are no paved roads and there is no waste disposal or pickup, resulting in no formal way to deal with household garbage. The lack of waste management in the community has significant environmental implications, public health impacts, and is also a barrier to creating more economic opportunity for residents in El Cocal. 

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It became clear that an amazing waste management system would still fail if community members were not on board with the project. Many community members did not see the purpose behind creating a waste management system and were fine with their current waste management methods (or lack-thereof). Residents that were on board with the system, especially children, were unclear on how waste management systems work and why they are important. An unprecedented component of the waste management system, an educational toolkit on waste management, was a necessary component for the system to succeed. Due to my experiences in the classroom and with children, I was chosen among my classmates to create a buildable, robust, educational toolkit on waste management, which would have to be relevant to Costa Rican waste products, applicable to adults and children, and provided in English and Spanish so that GVI staff with limited Spanish skills could engage with the activities in the future. 


My role on the team was to create educational resources and games surrounding waste management in the context of El Cocal. Most other students in the class worked on various structural components of the waste management system, which would combine to make a thoroughly fleshed out waste management system. While I was the lone student working specifically on education, I also worked in close collaboration with the head of the identity rebranding group, Zaiah Briscoe, in order to create a cohesive system relevant to the community. My design would not have been possible without the input of community members, GVI staff, and my professor, the amazing Sarah Tranum.


The El Cocal Waste Management Toolkit was created through participatory design, observational research, desk research, and my own personal experiences in educating children. Lesson plans were executed in English by me and translated into Spanish by GVI. Each lesson was compiled into a book to be deemed GVI's "environmental/waste management" lesson plan book which would be executed throughout the year by GVI staff. Lesson plans are complete with images and descriptions on how to carry out each lesson plan or game as well as material lists from common, inexpensive or free items found in El Cocal. The lesson plans for adults featured cards with images of common El Cocal waste items with the item written in English and Spanish to be played like a buildable "game show" out of recommendation from a variety of residents and these cards were created in Illustrator to be printed and laminated.