RecycleBank — a rewards and loyalty program that motivates people to recycle — is coming to Canada. This has big implications for program operators and anyone interested in waste diversion. To understand why, let’s first take a quick look at the program.
RecycleBank launched its program in Philadelphia in 2006, and is expanding across North America. Each participating household is provided with a plastic recycling cart with an embedded active 134.2 kHz RFID tag in its side. The consumer fills the bin with approved recyclables, specified on a side sticker. Automated collection vehicles pick up the bins, and the RFID tag transmits a unique ID number and data about the weight of the cart contents to a back-end computer system, which in turn transfers it at the MRF to RecycleBank’s web-based server.
If RecycleBank supplies everything, the program costs a municipality one to two dollars per household per month (which can be added to residents’ bills). Costs may be less if the municipality funds the carts.
Consumers can log into their personal accounts on the RecycleBank website and view how much they’ve diverted as well as statistics on such things as the amount of oil or number of trees saved. They can also see the reward points they’ve accumulated, up to a monthly maximum, which can be accumulated and redeemed for discount coupons from local businesses (e. g., grocery stores) or from among 400 national partners that include Kraft Foods, IKEA, Starbucks, CVS/pharmacy, Bed Bath & Beyond, 1-800 Flowers, Staples, The Coca-Cola Company, etc.
RecycleBank expects to grow households served from 125,000 in nine U. S. states to half a million this year. Last year, participating households redeemed more than $1 million points, and data suggests these households recycle twice as much as homes without the program. Some municipalities have seen a dramatic increase in recycling rates using this program. In addition to municipalities, RecycleBank is partnering with waste haulers such as Casella Waste Systems, Inc. and Republic Waste Services of NJ, LLC.
Let’s look at the benefits of RecycleBank first, and then some potential negatives.
First, almost anything is welcome that moves recycling out of the moribund world of government accounting and into the dynamic space of markets and private enterprise. RecycleBank points send a crucial market signal to recyclers that goes beyond the marketing of environmentally virtuous behavior; the passionately concerned can donate their reward dollars to worthy causes (including Coca-Cola-sponsored green school and the ocean conservation programs.)
In addition to rewards coupons, RecycleBank’s customer care department, with its 1-800 numbers and website, is a positive step toward getting people to think of recyclable materials as commodities and not just waste to get rid of.
RecycleBank is helping uplevel the waste industry with leading-by edge technology. The use of RFID equipment will allow measurement, and therefore better management, of programs. Neighborhoods, streets and even individual homes that are poor performers can be targeted effectively with educational material. RecycleBank is also promoting a form of reverse-vending equipment for campuses and apartments where curbside programs aren’t available. Recyclable materials are placed in a bag or plastic bin, and then deposited at a special kiosk that weighs the material and credits the user’s account. (Users are given a special key card.)
Thus far, the RecycleBank programs favor single-stream recycling (where fibre and containers are comingled). This will be popular with some operators prepared to invest in automated collection equipment and who may already have a single-stream recycling plant. But this will be viewed negatively by supporters of two-stream systems, and mills concerned about contamination. (RecycleBank could eventually extend a variation of its program to two-stream systems.)
Coca-Cola is a big sponsor of this program, and some observers might imagine a bias creeping into municipal programs toward single-stream recycling, and favoritism toward those waste haulers like Casella who are program partners and already have single-stream plants. (Concern over just this conflict was raised by officials in Chittenden Country, Vermont.) A level playing field must somehow be maintained that lets contracts to two-stream and single-stream operators.
According to Atul Nanda, president of RecycleBank Canada, discussions have started about possibly extending RecycleBank points to Green Bin organics programs, to boost diversion further. Although points could be redeemed with any sponsor, this could be a great fit with grocers and restaurants.
A more serious concern is that RecycleBank — while it may increase diversion — does little to restore the 3Rs hierarchy. From a macro perspective, the environment would be better served if consumers bought fewer products sold in non-reusable packaging and nonrefillable containers. Should we really reward people for buying even more water in single-serve plastic bottles? Clearly not.
It’d be great to see this concept extended to reuse and reduction, awarding points to consumers for consuming less, or buying reusable and refillable packaging. (“ReductionBank” anyone?) That would pretty much be a deposit-refund system, now wouldn’t it?A cynic might say that perhaps it was to fight that idea — bottle bills — that RecycleBank was sponsored by Coca-Cola in the first place.
Visit www.recyclebank.comor contact Canadian president Atul Nanda at firstname.lastname@example.org
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com