Recycling app tells people how to recycle empty pizza boxes, dead light bulbs, old juice boxes and many other waste products

One day in 2014, Giacomo Farneti, a computer science student in Bologna, Italy, finished a small carton of juice and wanted to throw it away responsibly. He looked around for information on how to recycle it, since it contained paper, aluminum and plastic. He wondered why it was so difficult to get the answer.

With two friends, Giacomo built a prototype for an app called Junker that helps people sort waste. The friends knew the owner of a supermarket and went there at night to scan product barcodes. Linking the barcodes to the materials in each package, they started building a database.

Today, Junker’s database has grown to 1.8 million products, and 2.5 million people in Italy have downloaded the recycling app. The company says that 30% of the country’s households actively use its service.

Sorting with barcodes

Anybody who has stared at an empty pizza box or a dead lightbulb, wondering how to recycle it, will appreciate Junker. When you scan a product’s barcode, Junker identifies it, breaks it down into components, and indicates how to sort them for recycling in the local area. If a product isn’t in the database, people can report it. It takes about a day for Junker’s team to locate the information and add the item.

The app comes in 12 languages, making it especially useful for foreigners and tourists. “We invite municipalities to spread the word among hotels or short-term property rental hosts,” says Paolo Fornari, Junker’s social media manager. “Tell your guests to download the app for the week they are staying there, so they can sort waste properly like locals.” Junker is also designed for the blind and visually impaired, and people can use the app to get answers about sustainable lifestyles.

The app is free for users, but the company charges cities and waste-disposal companies an annual fee to join, based on population numbers. When a city subscribes to the app, its residents receive extra functions, such as a calendar of local collection days, or maps showing collection points for specific kinds of waste. Around 1 500 Italian cities have subscribed, as well as 20 in Switzerland. Junker had revenue of €1.4 million in 2022 and estimates that the European market for this business is worth nearly €50 million a year.

© Junker

The Junker app identifies the different package components, and the correct way to recycle them.

In Italy, cities are responsible for collecting waste and selling it to national organisations for recycling. Each town has its own sorting rules. But if waste like paper, plastic and glass aren’t “pure” enough, they are refused, and the cities must pay to have the waste treated another way. By improving sorting, Junker estimates that the app can save cities about €34 per person each year.

“Many times, municipalities tell us, ‘Two years ago we were at a 20-30% recycling rate, now we are at 60-70%,’’’ Paolo says. “So, we cannot make a direct connection, but we can surely say Junker is contributing to the cause by helping people sort waste better.”

An active role in the circular economy

On average, each person in Europe generates about 500 kilogrammes of municipal waste per year, and Europe’s overall recycling rate is below 50%. In some countries, it is lower than 20%. Effective recycling depends on proper sorting.  

“Most of the time, the responsibility is on the citizens,” Paolo says. “But the problem is that citizens don’t often get a tool to learn to sort waste correctly. We believe Junker can be a tool to help them, to support them in this process, and make them real protagonists of this shift to a circular economy.”

A white paper on good practices in the fields of environment and energy, written by students at the College of Europe, says the Junker app could “play a strategic role” in the EU’s new circular economy action plan, “because it links the new technologies with the active participation of citizens.”

The Italian company was a 2022 finalist in the European Investment Bank Institute’s Social Innovation Tournament, which recognises entrepreneurs who are making a difference in their communities. Paolo says the tournament gave Junker great exposure to an international audience, and that the company plans to expand, starting with Greece and Slovenia.

“We also hope that one day Junker will be used by people not to sort waste, but to do other things for their sustainable lifestyles,” he says. “Because it means that people have learned to sort waste correctly, and they use it for other aspects of the circular economy. It means that we got to our goal: to educate people on waste sorting."