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UBC Okanagan engineers look to make donation bins safer

New funding is helping the team retrofit bins

A UBCO project to prevent people from getting trapped in clothing donations bins has received a boost in funding.

After eight deaths since 2015, many charities across the country pulled their clothing donation bins from the streets. People were climbing inside the bins to collect items, but some became trapped and suffocated inside.

Removing the bins didn’t solve the problem, but it sparked an idea at UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering. Last fall, first-year students were asked to come up with modifications to existing bins as part of their engineering design course. Several conceptual ideas were proposed, with the best selected by a panel of social activists and design and manufacturing experts.

The original intent was to forward these designs to the fourth-year engineering capstone design course. However, with the added public awareness and most bins removed from the streets, it was determined that a design task force should be established.

The task force was recently presented with a $75,000 injection of funding from the Firstline Foundation to design and create a prototype as well as test retrofit kits for existing bin designs.

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“This project will enable a multi-million dollar industry to continue to operate by providing safe options that will ensure safety and operability,” said Ray Taheri, a senior engineering instructor and task force lead.

“This funding is crucial to addressing this issue in an efficient way and to ultimately to help save lives.”

The project isn’t without its challenges, as donation bins come in a variety of shapes, sizes and configurations, Taheri explains. Each has a different design and uses a different door mechanism. As a result, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Consequently, the task force may need to design unique stand-alone retrofitted solutions for each style of bin.

According to Taheri, momentum from the initial design course has focused the group’s efforts on developing retrofit kits for existing donation bins while investigating intelligent systems that can unlock bins or alert emergency services.

“Anecdotally we know the majority of these incidents occur between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., so we are looking at a few options including engaging automated locking systems between those hours,” he said.

The donation bin industry is a multi-million dollar enterprise across North America and funds charitable organizations including the Salvation Army, Diabetes Canada, Big Brothers and Sisters, Goodwill and many others.

It’s not the first time UBC Okanagan’s School of Engineering has been active in providing solutions to help under-serviced groups. Three years ago, a project to design a personal belonging carrier for the homeless was a class assignment. Now several carriers, manufactured at UBCO, are on the streets of Kelowna through a partnership with Metro Community Church.

“Many people look at engineering as solely technical innovation, but we are noticing that our researchers and students are championing social innovation through their projects and activities,” said School of Engineering associate dean Rehan Sadiq.

With the infusion of funding from the Firstline Foundation, Taheri and the design task force are hopeful they will find a solution that will save lives and help charities across North America continue to benefit from the generosity of their communities.

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