Reverse Shop: A 300 Day Upliftment Cycle through Gamification and Economification of Household Waste

January 10, 2022


A 300 Day Cycle: The Reverse Shop

“When the forest and the city are functionally indistinguishable, then we know we have reached sustainability… Organisms don’t think of CO2 as a poison. Plants and organisms that make shells, coral, think of it as a building block” - Janine Benyus

When we set out on our household waste recycling challenge, we had no idea that it would lead us to the development of a new type of entity. Something more than a modified version of countless recycling initiatives around the globe. Yet, the unique circumstances in Syria combined with the determination and willpower of the Accelerator Lab, UNDP Syria country office and UNDP Aleppo area office to provide a fresh perspective on waste resulted in so much more than a 300-day challenge (3 x 100-day cycles). The result was a fundamentally different way to engage economic resources in a post conflict social setting to resolve environmental catastrophes: To look at waste in all its forms as building blocks. Before we continue, however, Let’s start by answering the curious questions building up in your mind as you read the blog:

What? The Syria Accelerator Lab alongside local partners designed what has become known as the Reverse Shop; a nature inspired outdoor booth focused on the exchange of household waste for physical and virtual incentives. The Reverse Shop is fully solar powered, connects to existing diverse reverse supply chains that were previously inaccessible to households due a problem with the economics of waste collection. Moreover, it adds a layer of sub-segregation that reduces social stigma & health hazards towards vulnerable informal waste pickers. Lastly, it highlights both the negative and positive impacts of individual actions on entire ecosystems. 

Why? Simply put “The major problem in the world is the result of the difference between how nature works, and the way people think” – Gregory Bateson. “Nature runs on sunlight… uses only the energy it needs… fits form to function… recycles everything… rewards cooperation… banks on diversity… demands local expertise… curbs excesses from within… taps the power of limits” - Janine Benyus. “In nature there is no such thing as waste. In nature nothing is wasted; everything is recycled” – David Suzuki. “Waste isn’t waste until we waste it.” - William Adams Jr. 

Where? The Reverse Shop is located at the heart of Aleppo city in one of the main parks surrounded by neighbourhoods of different economic segments. Its proximity to shopping areas and schools means we can track the behavioural insights stemming from a diverse target population.

When? Our challenge was conducted in 3 phases from April – December 2021. Our behavioural insights testing period will take place from January to March 2022.

How? It exchanges these products for physical and virtual incentives. This is done through specialized waste collection stations that are gamified in order to engage families with a specific focus on rewarding children for positive sustainable behaviour.

1st 100 Days: Waste Economification & Gamification

“One must do what one can do. No matter how little it is, it is nonetheless a human testimony and human testimonies, as long as they are not based on greed or personal ambition for power, can have unexpected positive effects” – Manfred Max Neef


Commencing our challenge by shaping a collective understanding of the problem at hand was perhaps our wisest move. Going into a challenge with preconceptions about why previous initiatives did not work can be extremely misleading. After all we did not know whether it was the rollout? The community engagement? The recycling colour scheme being unclear? Or did society simply not want to participate? Read more about these in our previous blogpost.

From our investigation it turns out there were 2 overarching problems: [1] Even when society participated in coloured bin waste segregation, the waste was dumped into the same collection vehicles leading to a sense of dissatisfaction and frustration amongst the community for disregarding their efforts [2] Given that segregation activities require knowledge and energy, most adults are unable to prioritize the issue over existing post conflict struggles they are faced with.

That is why our 1st 100 days were spent with waste pickers, waste bin designers, owners of previous recycling initiatives, workers in the reverse supply chain, local non-profits, and UNDP staff to form a comprehensive picture. Our finding: The biggest problem with the waste collection system is the collection point itself (waste bin) which had unfortunately been degraded to an unsegregated biohazard to both the community and to waste collectors.

Our approaches were also diverse. We visited informal waste disposal sites, waste sorting sites, collection bins, previous UN and UNDP initiatives and even waste upcycling factories. We conducted focus groups with waste collectors, women led households, local NGO’s and previous UNDP staff. Lastly, we concluded our investigation with an interactive workshop around waste that simulated the household trash dumping process to help contextualize the problem. At root, all our insights pointed towards a lack of incentive to sort. Our solution? Gamification & Economification* 

*Gamification: Addition of game-like elements including physical and virtual incentives to the design of initiatives in order to encourage children to participate in recycling and upcycling.

 Economification: Giving economic, social, and environmental market value to a behavioural output that can be used to root out worst behaviours (in this case the biggest polluting ones).

Yet, without a champion who stands to gain something from their positive behaviour, any initiative is bound to fail or be unsustainable. From our citywide and countrywide survey one thing was clear; mothers currently are the owners of recycling and upcycling in the household. Yet, children were the ideal champion that mothers could positively influence in the household as they learn easily, interact with one another more often and have the spare time.

2nd 100 Days: Positive Behavioral Underpinnings 

“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behaviour. Keep your behaviour positive because your behaviour becomes your habits” – Mahatma Gandhi


Before rushing to solutions, the 2nd 100 days of our journey led us down an interesting road that focused on indigenous recycling knowledge that has been overshadowed. Ignoring that would have left the community with a sense that their existing positive behaviours are not appreciated. Interestingly, what we found was actually part of a broader cultural mechanism used to deal with useful waste. Read more about these in our previous blogpost.

Over the course of July, in collaboration with a local youth platform named Syrian Window (Shebak Souri), interactive posts and videos regarding sustainable practices were posted on social media to create awareness and gauge knowledge about these practices. This led to discoveries that added to our collection of insights.

The amazing world we uncovered was the result of traditional activities as well as some which came to being during economic hardship. For example, households have existing mechanisms in place to deal with certain types of food waste (old bread & eggshells) which can be used in chicken feed. Households keeping old cooking oil aside after using it to avoid polluting drain water. Children making all types of useful products from CD’s. Fathers performing plastic surgery on old chairs to extend their life (Ask us about this!) and so much more!

What was needed was a way to extend this to virtually any waste and to involve the middle to higher income families in these mechanisms (given our analysis showed that they are the biggest waste producers). The key to this was in viewing it through an opportunity lens. After all, this waste is ending up somewhere. Might as well direct it to the right place in exchange for something rewarding.

This, arguably, was one of the most important findings that would eventually lead to the selection of the appropriate testing area. In a post crisis context, people were simply unresponsive or potentially even harsh in their criticism against recycling and upcycling initiatives that they sometimes viewed as unnecessary or wasteful. If we were to transform the positive behavioural underpinnings into positive behavioural habits, we had to find a place where the community could simultaneously see the destructive impact of waste on the environment whilst being in the right mental state to engage with our proposed solutions. 

3rd 100 Days: Experimentception 

“If you're going to perform inception, you need imagination. You need the simplest version of the idea-the one that will grow naturally” - Inception


Ever take part in a collective design activity and think to yourself… How will we know what to try? Whose idea is right? Which idea will have scaling problems? Should I contribute my crazy idea or is there enough craziness floating around?

Well… this is just a taste of the problems we faced when trying to gather ideas for solutions to the challenge in the 3rd 100 days. What was noteworthy, however, was the way we resolved this problem: Experimentception…. Yes… Experimentation mixed with the movie Inception. You see in our context there was no way to know for sure which ideas were the right ones. Moreover, the evolution of these ideas into initiatives might bring about unforeseen side effects. The solution? Try everything… the simplest version of everything… multiple times.

After all, why not solve the waste cooking oil problem by making a vending machine that disposes soap (one of the upcycled products of used cooking oil) and alerts an existing reverse supply chain business to collect the oil once it is economically feasible to do so. Also, why not make the side wall an area for people who want to positively vandalize our machine (which we treasure as art since it adds uniqueness) and build trust by making the internal mechanisms visible to get kids excited about recycling and cleanliness whilst comforting adults with transparency.

The point of the above? They are very different ideas… They came from tens of people…  They promote different behaviours… Some might even be unnecessary to the success of the overall concept. Yet, by allowing a space for all ideas to be tested, we included as many opinions and perspectives as possible. Moreover, by replicating the same design decision across various experiments one can quickly identify whether it was the experiment or design decision that was problematic. In a sense, it mimicked implementing a genetic algorithm approach to testing design decisions into experimentation. At the end of our collective design, we ended up with 7 coherent concepts which synergized from over 50 ideas [Ask us for more details]:

Waste Material



Reward Type


Bottles - Cap

Vending Machine

Plastic Lego Brick


6 Categories

Stationary Bin

Peer Reward

Plastic, Garden, Hazard

Each Bin into 4

Movable Bin

No Reward

Cooking Oil


Vending Machine

100g Soap Bar


Books - Shredded

Vending Machine

Motivational Quote

Chips Bags


Vending Machine

1 Minute Cartoon

All Waste

10 Categories


Knowledge of Impact


Enter the [W]atrix 

“No one has ever done anything like this. I know, that's why it's going to work” – The Matrix


On the 31st of November 2021 we conducted a virtual call to share our journey with the UNDP Accelerator Lab network, UNDP Syria office and our local partners. The call had a hidden surprise in store for the attendees; it included a virtual live walkthrough of the Reverse Shop that online participants could get try out physically.

Two mentimeter diagrams came out of the session. One was for a vote on which experiment had the biggest chance for success. The plastic bottle and oil recycling machines received the highest vote. Moreover, our design decisions were also put to the test and product incentives as well as giving a space for artistic vandalism received special attention.

So now for the big question: Will our initiative solve the waste problem once and for all?.. No. What it did do is bring together a team of over 50 people from diverse backgrounds to contribute their insights into the design of a comprehensive initiative that could be the seed for a full-scale solution. More importantly it presents the community with a clear economic, social, and environmental choice: Vicious Cycle or Upcycle?

The story ends a few decades down the line as economic, social and environment destruction gets compounded and turns into something unresolvable.

We showcase how upcycling your household waste through easily integrable daily habits rewards you with constant economic, social, and environmental credit.