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How Recyclebank Motivates People to Recycle: A Conversation with Javier Flaim

Written by Money
Published: September 23, 2014

“How can we move the needle on recycling?” opens Javier Flaim, CEO of Recyclebank, as we begin a conversation about the company's first 10 years, and what's next.

Founded a decade ago on the premise that people can be motivated to recycle more, Flaim says that those initial insights that formed the basic premise for Recyclebank still remain valid today in Recyclebank's behavioral science and social based approach, one that Flaim outlines in a Huffington Post blog, Change Your Behavior and Change Your City.

 “We came up with a novel system,” Flaim says. And while the business continues to transform, that basic goal endures.” Flaim, who previously served as chief sales and marketing officer at the company, succeeded Jonathan Hsu as CEO in 2013.

When the company was launched back in 2004, it had a fresh idea. “We measured how much was recycled and provided award points based on weight." It was a system that involved putting RFID chips on recycling bins and weight scales.

“Today we have a different approach but the same idea - all in the name of increasing recycling. And having fun with it along the way, working to make it relevant for people like you and me.” 

“For all the changes we have made,” Flaim stresses, “the motivation is still the same today.”

One way that Recyclebank’s business model has changed is in shifting from an asset-intensive company to an asset-light operation.

“Initially we owned and invested in a lot of bins, weight scales, laptops in trucks,” Flaim says. “We invested in a lot of infrastructure. The technologies have matured. Now cities are investing in the technologies and we have become the marketing and loyalty program. We are able to leverage the technology they are investing in through incentives and education.” He calls it a win-win partnership, and a nice fit for his company.

A key to Recyclebank is to be able to understand what drives residents to recycle more. Flaim says that a timely feedback to recycling behavior is important. “We have to be really good in communicating back to residents.” He draws the parallel between daily exercise and fitness, or daily diet and health, where motivation to perform the daily routine may lag because the results of that regime maight not be evident for months or years. “We can recycle today but we may not know what the impact is. Our role is to make recycling relevant through immediate feedback. We are trying to apply those (feedback) principles to environmental impact. We have to be experts in translating impacts.” Recyclebank provides both individual as well as community based rewards.

When it comes to motivating people, Flaim observes that there are different cohorts. Some participants have a goal of collecting as many points as they can in the name of doing “the right thing” towards sustainability. Such people see a large points total as a bade of honor. Then there is another group which is excited about accumulating points to earn rewards such as gift cards or a free entrée. Finally, there is another group that has more altruistic intentions and wishes to give back. With this in mind, Recyclebank has created an option for donations.  Social dynamics are also important, Flaim stresses. People want to be a part of a team or community, and share stories. One gets a good sense of this at Recyclebank's facebook page.

Looking forward to its second decade of business, Flaim says that Recyclebank will continue to innovate around the emerging needs of clients, citing trends towards recycling at multi-family dwellings and organics recycling as the company expands its portfolio of offerings to communities. Another innovation, Flaim notes, has been the creation of Recyclebank’s ecommerce platform, One Twine, which he says has been the result of listening to requests from among Recyclebank’s 4 million particpants, who trust Recyclebank, and are interested in buying products from the company. Now with over 1500 products listed, all have passed rigorous criteria with respect to sustainability.

Finally, Recyclebank continues to strive towards collaboration, engaging brands in discussions about how to best collaborate with them in “being that unifying platform,” and to have fun, Flaim stresses, along the way.

“When it comes to recycling, we can’t do it alone,” Flaim summarizes, “we have to collaborate. That’s what fills me with passion is to be that collaborative platform. That’s what keeps us up at night.”

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