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Green Incentives: RecycleBank Dollars
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by Adrian Muller

Trends come and go, and the media's attention lasts only so long, which means that if, down the road, a new idea pushes sustainability out of the cultural spotlight, we'll need to have established systemic mechanisms that guarantee continued popular commitment to sustainable lifestyles. One way to keep the transformation moving independent of the tides of trend is through incentives.

Creative Economist, Steven Levitt, states that an incentive is simply a means of urging people to do more of a good thing and less of a bad thing, and that the world has not yet invented a situation that cannot be forced given the right incentive scheme. Philadelphia-based company RecycleBank has come up with an innovative recycling incentive that rewards households for the amount of recyclables they collect each week.

Using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips embedded in bins, garbage trucks scan and weight the bins, automatically recording each household’s contribution. This amount is translated into RecycleBank Dollars that can be spent at participating stores, such as Starbucks, Home Depot, HP, Coca Cola, etc. Some of these companies have also established community funds for local non-profit groups, community projects, charities, and environmental organizations.

Customers are provided with a recycling bin and an online account number, used to track their balance, which can be up to $400 per year in RecycleBank Dollars. Additionally, households can determine the environmental impact of their contribution and see how many trees and gallons of oil are being preserved thanks to them.

Household recycling has long been the poster child of individual environmental responsibility (together with car sharing and low energy light bulbs), however it heavily relies on good faith and real commitment from individuals. For recycling to be effective and become a perpetual habit, citizens have to be adequately stimulated. Different economic and social incentives have been used to promote recycling (including similar approaches that lacked the technological edge given by the RFID chip). What makes RecycleBank stand out, is the fact that it manages to involve all actors of society: government, which is responsible in most cities for waste hauling and recycling services; citizens, who are doing the recycling; and businesses that participate by offering product discounts through recycle earn coupons.

Environmental and economic sustainability are the hallmarks of RecycleBank's business model and company ethos. The RecycleBank program seeks to promote increased recycling, local business development, decreased landfill/incinerator usage, and the education of communities on sustainable business, social and living practices.

During an initial pilot program, participation rose to 90% of the 2,500 residents who subscribed, up from less than 25% of those households when the program began. In addition, the average recycling rate rose from less than 5% to more than 50%. In 2007, RecycleBank plans to offer the service to an additional 250,000 households in the Philadelphia area.

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Comments

This incentive is fine for the short-medium term, but it appears to place too heavy an emphasis on a full recycle bin. What happened to 'reduce' part of the mantra?

It also creates another incentive: to 'cheat' by chucking everything into the recycle bin!

Would it be a major problem to come up with a scoring system that rewarded a low overall weight of refuse, as well as a high proportion of reusable refuse?


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 3 Jun 07

This is a positive incentive, but currently more common are negative incentives. For instance, many European cities charge for trash and recycling bags (and people must used these approved bags). This then gives waste a very visible cost. Of course, the amount needs to be significant enough to cause people to change. Zurich (I believe) charges something like $5 a small trash bag. Here the incentive to reduce non-recyclable trash is so strong that residents have petitioned manufacturers and the like to reduce packaging.


Posted by: Peter Robinett on 4 Jun 07

I totally agree that the incentive (either positive or negative) has to be significant enough to cause people to change. I think than one of the reasons in Europe we see more negative incentives for recycling, is associated with the fact that the coupon culture is not remotely as strong as in the States.

The problem with recycling bags is that lacking a mechanism to associate it to someone in particular, is limited to residential areas, since the hauling system will only pick authorized bags. In an apartment setting, complying residents could pay the misdeeds of non-complying residents in the form of streets full of non authorized bags.

In Holland for example, where a bag system is used in some municipalities, there have been some examples of neighbors dumping their trash as far as 5 km from their home. In the end, recycling is always subject to good faith, but we can only hope for the best.


Posted by: Adrian Muller on 4 Jun 07

I currently live and recycle in Germany. There is a monthly fee charged for certain recycling bins (waste paper and organic wastes including food scraps and yard wastes) but I have never been charged extra for setting out the "yellow bag" recycling. All packaging wastes, including metal cans, plastic bags, and styrafoam packing material can be placed in the yellow bag. The only control incentive seems to be the fact that they only collect yellow bag twice a week.

Glass is another matter. Glass is not picked up. Instead you have to drop it off at a neighborhood recycling station. However, the glass recycling stations are literally everywhere. There is one five minutes walk from my apartment, and at least four that I know of within a fifteen minute walk.


Posted by: Christian on 4 Jun 07

Each approach I have ever seen to increase recycling by "households" has major flaws. Anything that increases waste disposal cost will damage the environment by creating "dumping". Tracking weights is a great idea, but it has many flaws. Number one being control of the recycled goods. One way to increase the amount of recycled goods showing up in the form of "Recycle Bank Dollars" is to just fill up containers with water to add to the weight.

First off, RFID tags are a very expensive approach to a simple task: measurement. Technology always seems to add unneeded complexity and potential problems: Why not just give a set amount of money to people who recylce and just visually inpect the fill of their containers? I know that this limits the ability for them to check how they are helping the planet online with cool graphical displays and such, but take all the money that was going to be invested into these RFID tags and put that toward educational programs in schools and I believe we will see a cultural transition that is much needed in today's society.

There is a huge generational problem with recycling, like trying to teach an old dog new tricks. The way to achieve a transition in generation's past is to teach their children. Many parents' decisions are based on what is best for their children and through this communication a new foundation of can be formed where children assist in the recycling process so that the parents become the students. This is the future, not money, but understanding through education.

There is no "quick" fix to the problem of recycling, but there is a future that is held by the children and they should be driving this transition.

I am sick of the capitalistic approach of markets driving transition, people need to drive this transition in order for future generations to have the same great resources that they had: clean water, pristine environents, etc.

The simplest approach is always the best. Technology has created more problems by replacing tested classical approaches with "WOW" electronic unneccesity. I am sure that the cut for the company sponsoring this green approach by suppling the RFID tags is substantial, which is why they are trying to push this. To that firm: Give me an ecological foot print with energy usage for the creation of these RFID tags, the computers needed to store and maintain data, and the scanners on trucks. Then add to it the employees needed to maintain the equipment, their estimated transportational cost: cars, gas, equipment, etc. Lifecycle the RFID Tags, and all the electronics. Then tell me which is better: education or electronics. Money drives your machine, not the future of the environment.


Posted by: pdq1966 on 4 Jun 07

I like the company and think they are trying to do something good to approach a big problem. I've wondered about the technology, however. What's to stop someone from putting water in the cans or something to jack up the weight?


Posted by: Preston on 4 Jun 07

Like sustainability, recycling has many fronts (reducing consumption, educating, enforcing, etc). There is no single tool, model or idea that will improve all aspects of recycling at once. We need to build a holistic toolbox that tackles all aspects. Education is indeed crucial, but it can be smoothly complimented with other methods.

Direct physical inspection could be very beneficial, but it would be incredibly time consuming, like going to the supermarket and having our goods registered manually without scanning the bar codes. Technology should not be a driver but a facilitator.


Posted by: Adrian Muller on 4 Jun 07

Adrian:

Physical inspection time consuming? Imagine what would happen if the RFID reader was broken for one hour? Then what? Back indicator, more electronics? This can not be the easiest and most cost effective way to track recycling. When my recycling is picked up right now in totes, they are hand loaded into a truck. This means that they are automatically visually inspected by the operator of the recycling truck. All he has to do is get in the truck and write 1/4, 1/2, or full in a bubble sheet or maybe a PDA. Just ONE electronic device and that is much more cost effective.


Posted by: pdq1966 on 4 Jun 07

I'm finding this discussion fascinating for the various descriptions of how the local garbage is handled. (from an educational perspective, it's worthy of a topic in itself!)

So they use bags that are manually picked up in Germany?

Many, if not all Melbourne councils have opted for 120litre 'wheelie' bins that are lofted into the truck by hydraulic lift. Bins are classified: rubbish, recyclable, green waste.

Green waste is composted.

Recyclables include glass, paper, metals and plastics (1-3, or even 1-7)

The whole lot is taken to a sorting station (it would be nice to actually know what happens after that, but I assume it gets put to good use)

One variation on this I have seen is at Apollo Bay (SW where the recycling bin is partitioned into glass and other stuff. They don't do paper, though.

Are there any other variations on the theme that someone would like to comment on? What about economic drivers? (a dearth of suitable landfill sites, in Melbourne's case)


Posted by: T on 4 Jun 07

I'm finding this discussion fascinating for the various descriptions of how the local garbage is handled. (from an educational perspective, it's worthy of a topic in itself!)

So they use bags that are manually picked up in Germany?

Many, if not all Melbourne councils have opted for 120litre 'wheelie' bins that are lofted into the truck by hydraulic lift. Bins are classified: rubbish, recyclable, green waste.

Green waste is composted.

Recyclables include glass, paper, metals and plastics (1-3, or even 1-7)

The whole lot is taken to a sorting station (it would be nice to actually know what happens after that, but I assume it gets put to good use)

One variation on this I have seen is at Apollo Bay (SW where the recycling bin is partitioned into glass and other stuff. They don't do paper, though.

Are there any other variations on the theme that someone would like to comment on? What about economic drivers? (a dearth of suitable landfill sites, in Melbourne's case)


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 4 Jun 07

Here in Barcelona, the city municipality just installed a series of underground containers. One of the objectives is promoting selective collection, by making clear the purpose of each container. Each installation is made out of four underground containers, one for each type of trash. According to the government, some of the advantages of this system include:improving the visual impact by a better integration with the urban scenario, increasing available space in streets, reducing bad smells and reducing vandalism (burning of containers).

What I found pretty cool, is that I got a call from the municipality to schedule a meeting, so a representative could come to my house and explain the objective, advantages and functioning of the underground containers system.


Posted by: Adrian Muller on 5 Jun 07



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