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Improving Recycling Processes at Rose-Hulman, Part III

In previous posts, I discussed the results of a recycling project done by Six Sigma students at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology last spring. (If you’re playing catch up, you can read Part I and Part II.)

The students did an awesome job reducing the amount of recycling that was thrown into the normal trash cans across all of the institution’s academic buildings. At the end of the spring quarter (2014), 24% of trash cans (by weight) included recyclable items. At the beginning of that spring quarter, 36% of trash cans were recyclable items, so you can see that they were very successful in reducing this percentage!

The fall quarter (2015) brought a new set of Six Sigma students to Rose-Hulman who were just as dedicated to reducing the amount of recycling thrown into normal trash cans, and I want to cover their success in this post, as well as some of the neat statistical methods they used when completing their project.

Fall 2015 goals

This time around, the students wanted to at least maintain or improve on the percentage spring quarter (2014) students were able to achieve. They set out with a specific goal to reduce the amount of recycling in the trash to 20% by weight.

In order to further reduce the recyclables in the academic buildings in fall 2015, the standard “Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control” (DMAIC) methodology of Six Sigma was once again implemented. The main project goal focused on standardizing the recycling process within the buildings, and their plan to reduce the amount of recyclables focused on optimizing the operating procedure for collecting recyclables in all academic building areas (excluding classrooms) where trash and recycling are collected.

Many of the same DMAIC tools that were used by spring 2014 students were also used here, including—Critical to Quality Diagrams, Process Maps, Attribute Agreement Analysis, Gage R&R, Statistical Plots, FMEA, Regression—among many others.

Making and measuring improvements

The spring 2014 initiative added recycling bins to every classroom, which created a measurable improvement. The fall 2015 effort focused on improvement through standardization of operation. For example, many areas in the academic buildings suffer from random placement and arrangement of trash cans and recycling bins. The students thought standardization of bin areas (one trash, one plastic/aluminum recycling, and one paper recycling) would lessen the confusion of recycling, and clear signage and stickers on identically shaped trash cans and recycling bins would be better visual cues of where to place waste of both kinds.

For fall 2015, there were seven teams, and they were assigned different academic building floors (not including classrooms) and common areas. Unlike the spring 2014 data collection, the teams did not combine the trash from their assigned areas. They treated each recycling station as a unique data point.

After implementing the improvements to standardize the bins, the teams collected data for four days across twenty-nine total stations. Thus, there were a total of 116 fall 2015 improvement percentages. The fall 2015 students used the post-improvement percentage of recyclables in the trash from spring 2014 (24%) as their baseline for determining improvement in fall 2015.

The descriptive statistics for the percentage of recyclables (by weight) in the trash were as follows:

Below, the students put together a histogram and a boxplot of the data using Minitab Statistical Software. Over half of the stations (61 out of 116) had less than 5% of recyclables in the trash. Forty-six of the 116 recycling stations had no recyclables. The value of the third quartile (16.6%), meant that 75% of the stations had less than 16.6% recyclables. The descriptive statistics above showed that the sample mean was much larger than the sample median. The graphs confirmed that this must be the case because of the strong positively skewed shape of the data.

Even though the 116 data points didn’t follow a normal distribution and there was a large mound of 0’s as part of the distribution from collection spots that had no recyclables, the students trusted that the Central Limit Theorem with a sample size of 116 would generate a sampling distribution of the means that was normally distributed. Because of the large sample size and unknown standard deviation, they used a t distribution to create a 95% confidence interval for the true mean percentage of recyclables in the trash for fall 2015.

Also using Minitab, they constructed the 95% confidence interval:

The 95% confidence interval meant that the students were 95% certain that the interval [9.94, 18.22] contains the true mean percentage of recyclables in the trash for fall 2015. At an alpha level equal to 0.025, they were able to reject the null hypothesis, where H0: μ = 24% versus Ha: μ < 24%, because 24% was not contained in the two-sided 95% confidence interval. (Remember that 24% was the mean percentage of recyclables in trash after the spring 2014 improvement phase.) The null hypothesis for H0: μ = 20% versus Ha: μ < 20%, was rejected. This meant that they had met their goal to reduce the percentage of recyclables in the trash to below 20% for this project!

Continuing to analyze the data

The students also subgrouped their data by collection day. Each day consisted of data from 29 recycling stations. The comparative boxplots and individual value plots below show the percentage of recyclables in the trash across the four collection dates. (The horizontal dotted line in the boxplot is the mean from spring 2014’s post-improvement data.)

Though all four collection days have sample means less than 24%, it’s obvious from the boxplots that the first three collection days are clearly below 24%, and the medians from all four days are less than 11%. The individual value plots reveal the large number of 0’s on each day, which represented collection spots that had no recyclables. Both graphs display the positively skewed nature of the data. Because of the positive skewness, each day’s mean is much larger than its median.

How capable was the process?

Next, the students ran a process capability analysis for the seven areas where trash was collected over four days:

The process capability indices were Pp = 0.48 and Ppk = 0.42. (The Pp value corresponds to a 1.44 Sigma Level, while the Ppk value corresponds to a 1.26 Sigma Level.) Recall that the previous Ppk value after improvements in spring 2014 was 0.22. The fall 2015 index is almost double that value!

The students knew that they still needed to account for the total weight of the trash and recyclables by calculating the percentage of recyclables per station. Some collection stations with the highest percentage of recyclables had the lowest total weight, while some stations with the lowest percentage of recyclables had the highest total weight. Instead of strictly using a capability index to indicate their improvement, they incorporated a regression model for the trash weight versus the total weight of trash and recyclables to show that the percentage of recyclables in the trash was less than 20%.

The 95% confidence interval for the true mean slope of the regression line was [0.856, 0.954]. The students were 95% certain that the trash weight was somewhere between 0.86 to 0.96 of the total weight of the collection. Hence, the recycling weight was between 0.046 and 0.114 of the total weight. This value is clearly below 20% with 95% confidence! From this, they were able to state through yet another type of analysis that there was a statistically significant improvement over the spring 2014 recycling project, and that they met their goal of reducing the percentage of recyclables in the trash to below 20%. Compared to the spring 2014 project where 24% of the trash was recyclables, the fall 2015 students saved at least 4% more recyclables from ending up in the local landfill!

For even more on this topic, be sure to check out Rose-Hulman student Peter Olejnik’s blog posts on how he and the recycling project team at the school used regression to evaluate project results:

Using Regression to Evaluate Project Results, part 1

Using Regression to Evaluate Project Results, part 2

Many thanks to Dr. Diane Evans for her contributions to this post!

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