November 11, 2009 By Elaine Rundle
To increase recycling in municipalities, sometimes it takes more than just encouraging citizens to be environmentally friendly. Incentive-based recycling may have a strange ring to it -- especially to the ears of city officials -- but that's what some cities are doing to discourage citizens from throwing away recyclables. By reducing the amount of waste cities must dump at landfills, they save money in tipping fees while encouraging residents to be environmental stewards. Tipping fees are charges paid to landfills based on the volume of waste.
Adding an incentive to recycling was the idea Ron Gonen had in 2005 when he co-founded RecycleBank -- a program that tracks how many pounds a household recycles in order to offer incentives, like coupons and discounts at local businesses and restaurants, to residents.
Gonen, also RecycleBank's CEO, said the inspiration behind the program was developing a business model that showed people that being environmentally conscious was not just the right thing to do, but also a good way to save money.
RecycleBank installs bar codes or radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on recycling carts, which enable them to be scanned and linked to the coordinating address. Participating cities' recycling pickup trucks are retrofitted with a mechanical arm that includes a scale and bar code/RFID scanner. "It picks up the cart, reads the chip, identifies how much your home recycled, and that's translated into RecycleBank Points," Gonen said. "They can log on to our Web site [www.recyclebank.com], and it's just like looking at your bank statement: It tells you how much they recycled each week and how many RecycleBank Points they earned."
Gonen said more than 75 cities participate in the program and service was recently launched in the UK.
In June, Westland, Mich., implemented RecycleBank as its first curbside recycling program and has already found a significant increase in how much its citizens recycle. "The last couple years we have had a drop-off recycling center program that was averaging about 90 tons a month of recyclables, and that had pretty much leveled off," said the city's mayor, William Wild. "Our first month with RecycleBank picking up recyclables at the curb, that number went up to 550 tons."
However, Westland launched curbside recycling and RecycleBank simultaneously so no data exists regarding what tonnage curbside recycling would have generated without RecycleBank. Wild added that the city pays about $30 per ton to landfill trash, and in the first month the city diverted about one-third of its solid waste from the landfill.
Wild was looking for a new recycling program because single-stream recycling -- where different recyclables, like glass, plastic and paper, can be mixed in one container -- became available in Westland. "I knew that it was easy now, and I knew that we needed some way to give our residents an incentive to do it. And that was where the RecycleBank program really helped us out," he said. "Also what was beautiful about it was that we're able to give our residents an incentive to recycle and help our local economy."
Westland deployed approximately 28,000 bar-coded recycling carts to single-family households. In the first month, 99 percent of the possible participating residents registered their carts with RecycleBank, he said.
The program tracks the amount recycled for each pickup route and averages the number per household to evenly distribute the points to all participating residences on the route. Wild said this is to garner maximum participation. "I wanted folks to be rewarded just for participating," he said. "What I didn't want was for a senior citizen who maybe puts out five pounds a week and gets 2.5 RecycleBank Points per pound to be discouraged by a family of five next