Getting to know Nicobin

ökoRAUSCH Festival 2020 | Winner in the category of “students”

Combating Cigarette Litter with User Experience Design

Nicobin started as a cross-media project of ours (Lina Knoche, Lena Pietsch und Susanne Weiskopf) under the direction of Prof. Karen Nennen at the Rheinische Fachhochschule in Cologne. The project’s theme was social design, and we wanted to address the issue of litter in the urban landscape.

Litter in the streets of Cologne is very cost- and personnel-intensive for the city. The 750 employees of the city’s cleaning department clean around 459,700 kilometres of Cologne’s streets and sidewalks annually with its 280 vehicles. Cologne spends over seven million Euro every year to clean up carelessly discarded litter in parks and public spaces. Littering is the word that scientists use to describe deliberate or careless contamination of an area, which is one of the sources of increasing filth in cities. Anyone caught littering is likely to blame it on the lack of garbage cans; in most cases, however, the next waste bin was, at the most, 50 metres away in 80% of the cases. Popular justifications were also “it was just a little bit of garbage” and “everyone does it!”.

In order to better understand the issue of litter ourselves, we participated in an official clean-up in Cologne. On the website we found out about the spring cleaning of Cologne’s Beethoven Park, which was being organised by the local zero waste shop Tante Olga. We and 20 other people started off to the park with garbage bags and gloves. After two hours, all of our bags were full. The large amount of crown caps and cigarettes were very noticeable, many of them having already been stomped deep into the ground or softened by moisture, in the case of the cigarettes.

We followed up the spring cleaning with some research and found out that one single littered cigarette butt can account for the contamination of up to 200 litres of groundwater. And because around 80% of smokers, which is over one billion people world-wide, do not properly discard of their cigarette butts, it poses serious consequences for our environment. Seven out of 10 smokers aren’t even aware of the consequences of their behaviour. And because cigarette butts have long been a part of the urban landscape, they often go completely unnoticed. However, they cause high cleaning costs for the city and irreversible damage to the environment. We realised immediately that a solution for this problem has to be found, which is why we made it the mission of our final MA project.

In order to be successful, user experience designs must involve the actual target group in the development process, from start to finish. In the case of our project, this was a group of smokers that had not been aware of the effects of carelessly discarded cigarette butts. Our research phase included numerous interviews with smokers, the public order office of Cologne and experts, such as Mario Merella from Tobacycle n.e.V., an association that has made it their mission to reduce cigarette butt litter in Cologne and develop a recycling method for cigarettes. The material is treated, the toxins are bound and, together with other components, they are made into a new material.

We evaluated all of the designs and prototypes of our concept with the subjects in our target group. The feedback and usability tests afforded us the knowledge that helped us further develop our prototype and, in the end, build it using CAD. Our making-of video gives people insights into our work. The result of our final project is the fictitious start-up Nicobin. The idea is the production so-called “Kautomaten”, a play on the German words for “chew” (kauen) and “automated machine” (Automat). These machines, located throughout Cologne, allow smokers to trade in their cigarette butts for a piece of chewing gum. The product will be accompanied by an awareness campaign on the environmental impact of cigarette butts. The cooperation with Tobacycle n.e.V. will also ensure that the collected cigarettes will be recycled up to 100%, therefore creating a recycling loop.

We are very excited about the opportunity to present Nicobin to a wider audience at the ökoRAUSCH Festival in 2020!


In October of 2019, our community voted on who should be placed in the first two exhibition spaces in the MAKK in 2020. From a pool of six projects, three founders and three students could be voted for online. Nicobin won the “students” category.

The voting was supported by the City of Cologne and CREATIVE.NRW.


Lena Pietsch - Lina Knoche - Susanne Weiskopf

Lina, Susanne und Lena (vlnr) studieren zurzeit gemeinsam im Master User Experience Design an der RFH in Köln. Als Team ergänzen sie sich besonders durch ihre unterschiedlichen Bachelor-Backgrounds in Mediendesign, Produktdesign sowie Medienwirtschaft und Journalismus.

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