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Rewarding Recycling

Written by Scienceline
Published: June 12, 2008

Recyclebank is still too young for anyone to know what its overall effect will be. Jerry Powell, editor of Recycling Resource magazine, supports the program but doesn’t believe it will work in all communities. He sees it as one piece in the toolbox for boosting recycling rates.

One of the more visible components of the toolbox used by some states is the small change citizens can get for turning in beverage bottles. Environmental groups are pushing for expansion of these bottle bills to accommodate Americans’ growing consumption of disposable drinks.

States with mandatory recycling laws use enforcement to prod people. Some officials issue warnings or fines, but there are not enough human resources to check on everyone. Another monetary-based approach is what the Environmental Protection Agency calls “Pay as You Throw,” which is used in 7,000 cities across the United States. The program promotes recycling because it treats trash pickup as a service just like electricity or water—the more residents throw away, the more they have to pay.

New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection has started to pressure communities and businesses to provide recycling bins in public areas, like train stations, stadiums and convenience stores. The rise of bottled water consumption has led to many missed opportunities to recycle beverage bottles when people are away from home, says Guy Watson, the agency’s chief of the Bureau of Recycling and Planning. The state also plans to reach out to small businesses, whose bottled drinks and paper trail are ripe for recycling.

Powell thinks that public education and outreach are key to any initiative aiming to raise recycling rates. Whether it’s a full-blown marketing campaign or simple reminders, the idea is to get people to turn their words—“I care about the environment”—into deeds: recycling. Recyclebank sends new members welcome kits and holds presentations at schools. Residents who are not recycling enough may receive encouraging letters or even a drop-in visit from the company. To supplement this, Mayor Platt has held town meetings as the program begins for all Cherry Hill residents.

Of all the things that can be done, one of the strongest forces is simply peer pressure. Seeing others recycling, or hearing neighbors talk about it, can compel people to follow along. Powell remembers driving around to check bins set for pickup in a curbside recycling program he designed in Champaign, Ill. He saw a man watching him who then went back to his house and brought out his own bright red bin. But when Powell got to it, he saw that it was empty. Maybe the next time he filled it with recyclables. Another example of peer pressure driving recycling is a dinner party scenario. Dinner guests may ask where to dump an empty wine bottle and a host without a recycling bin may suffer mild embarrassment.

The motivating effects of peer pressure are a reminder that at the center of any rise or fall of rates are people. Powell is optimistic about getting people to recycle because, he says, “If you stand back and look at it, recycling is the largest environmental movement that the world’s ever known.”

Recyclebank’s way of capitalizing on the human element may explain its success so far. And they’re even prepared for some less positive human characteristics to sneak in: Each truck is equipped with a red button to flag a resident’s account if he tries to sneak hefty, reward-earning items like a bowling ball into the mix.

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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

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300+ in all 50 states

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