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Roll out the barrel: The city’s new recycling plan could offer a win-win-win solution

Written by Houston Chronicle
Published: April 7, 2010

Profit motive, Houston history has often shown, doesn't have to be a dirty concept. The city's new recycling experiment might be proving it again. This month, on the heels of a wildly successfully pilot effort serving 22,000 households, Houston's recycling partner RecycleBank is rolling out service to 54,000 more families.

You know you've been included if someone has left a giant green recycling barrel in your driveway and mailed you a pamphlet with a membership number. RecycleBank trucks will arrive every two weeks to cart away the contents of these barrels — and, with the help of special computer chips, reward households with points for each pound of recyclables. The points can be redeemed for purchases at local businesses or as donations to charities.

Dipping a toe into the program last year, the city found that in just a few months the pilot households produced a torrent of recycled trash. The participants, a careful mix of high, middle and low earners, some diligent and some who-cares recyclers, increased their total recycling output in three months by more than 140 percent.

In its first five months, the group sent 4.4 million fewer pounds of trash to landfills. They also spared 21,840 trees, conserved 1.5 million gallons of oil and saved taxpayers $56,784 in landfill fees. Though Houston — currently with the help of corporate and nonprofit sponsors — pays RecycleBank for its tracking and reporting service, the economic benefits have already outweighed these costs, said Marina Joseph, spokesperson for the Solid Waste Department. (Houston will pay RecycleBank $58,228 for fiscal year 2010).

Not bad for a metropolis branded the worst recycler in the country.

Houstonians, it seems, require tangible, individual incentives to recycle. Once those incentives are there, though, we're apparently willing to change our behavior almost overnight. RecycleBank's main lure is the $400 or so in purchasing points that it awards average recyclers each year for their good habits. It also helps that the program's big green carts are easy to maneuver — and that you can toss in recyclables without having to sort them.

But RecycleBank also offers an appealing leeway for personal choice. True, each household's profit is determined by the neighborhood's overall trash haul — the idea, RecycleBank officials say, is that small families and single folk aren't penalized for their relatively meager consumption habits. But members of each household decide for themselves how to spend the points in their account. Groceries. Medicine. Dinner out or sports gear.

You can even transfer the points to a cash donation for a local school or a charity. And it's surprising how often participants nationwide choose that option, say RecycleBank officials. In other cities, like Wilmington, Del., low-income residents are among the most likely to donate RecycleBank earnings.

Will Houstonians follow suit? Generosity, after all, often is the flip side of this city's distinct, for-profit character. RecycleBank, a for-profit, certainly wants to find out: Its goal is to install a green barrel in every eligible household citywide. As long as people keep recycling and Houston can fund it, the city backs that goal, Joseph said. Houstonians should watch the program closely, too.

If RecycleBank's early success really does have legs, Houston's decision to partner with this startup could be a triple win: for its budget, its environment and its pragmatic, bighearted population.

You can also view this article here.

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Recyclebank At A Glance

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New York, Philadelphia and Houston

Javier Flaim


The Coca-Cola Company, Craton Equity Partners, Generation Investment Management, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Paul Capital Investments, Physic Ventures, RRE Ventures LLC, Sigma Partners, Waste Management Inc., and Westly Group

4 Million+

300+ in all 50 states

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