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New Recycling Program like Money in the Bank

Written by Nashua Telegraph
Published: October 29, 2008

Let's face it: Recycling is a pain.

"Is this light or heavy cardboard?"

"Do I have to remove the cap from the plastic bottle?"

"Is it my turn to dump the compost bucket already?!?"

Ugh. No wonder we don't do much of it.

Statewide, about 23 percent of trash is recycled, a number that has been stagnant for five years. As little as 5 percent is recycled in some New Hampshire towns, according to state figures, which means more taxes have to pay for more landfills and society loses energy savings from harvesting used materials.

What can be done? Bribery, of course.

"So far, it looks like (recycling has increased) 2-1/2 times," said Thomas Ambrosino, mayor of Revere, Mass., which is testing an intriguing program called Recyclebank that uses bribes – sorry, incentives – to increase participation.

Recyclebank, founded by a University of Massachusetts grad named Ron Gonen, who developed the project at Columbia University (not every weird startup comes from Stanford), gives homeowners "points" to redeem at local companies, like the rewards you get for spending with your credit card.

"This is one of those ideas – you say to yourself, 'Why didn't I think of this?' " said Anthony Casali, New England manager for Recyclebank.

"It's gone through the roof," said Jon Norton, recycling coordinator for the city of Everett, Mass., and chairman of the city's conservation commission.

This city of 38,000 in the inner Boston Harbor started testing Recyclebank in January. It did so well, the program went citywide in July, ahead of schedule.

"We had about 3 percent of the people in this city recycling; now we have 50 percent or more," said Norton, who has been beating his head against the city's low recycling rate for years. "I was at my wit's end as to what to do."

When the program starts in a city, the municipality or the hauling company buys 96-gallon or 64-gallon carts with RFID computer chips in them. (Everett got the radio frequency tagged carts for free, as part of Recyclebank's push into Massachusetts.)

Those "smart carts" record the weight of recycled material (glass, plastic, metal, paper, all jumbled together) picked up each week, and that information goes into an account, where it's translated into points.

Homeowners go online to see how many points they've accumulated, and they eventually redeem the points for various stuff – stuff made of recycled material, I hope.

The only cost to the city or hauler is buying the bins.

Recyclebank profits two ways. It snags a small portion of sales and also a portion of each participating city's profit from recycling.

Landfilling costs Nashua $75 a ton and recycling brings in, on average, $40 a ton, so if Recycle-Bank came here and doubled the city's 25 percent recycling rate, Nashua would save slightly more than $1 million a year. Some of that would go to Recyclebank – slightly more than half of the "avoided tipping fee," in Everett's case.

Cities like it because it increases recycling. Homeowners like it because they can feel virtuous ("My recycling bin can beat up your recycling bin") and save a little bit of spending money. Businesses . . . I don't know if they like having another middleman, but they participate because they're afraid of losing customers if they don't.

Recyclebank is in 12 states, including Maine and Vermont, but hasn't come to New Hampshire yet. Casali is slated to speak with the state Department of Environmental Services about it. The decision to sign on is up to individual cities and towns, but a prod from the state wouldn't hurt.

Down in Revere, they're running a six-month test of Recycle-Bank on one trash route. The city wants to see if the savings from recycling will cover the cost of the bins, and if the program actually works for residents.

"So far, it has certainly increased our recycling rates by a good amount," Ambrosino said. "A lot of people are asking about it in other areas of the city – 'Why can't I get a bin?' "

The mayor isn't sure if the city will sign up permanently; the city needs to divert about 4,000 tons of waste a year from landfills to make it worth the cost. One happy sign is that so far, City Hall hasn't received any complaints from people about redeeming points or other aspects of the program (except that the bins are pretty heavy).

"So far, so good," Ambrosino said.

"It's an interesting idea. If I had money anymore, I'd invest in it!"

Read this article on the Nashua Telegraph's website now

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