October 25, 2013 | General

Earning Rewards For Recycling

Household program tracks frequency and occurrence of participation in curbside recycling with rewards available at any time.

Neil Seldman
BioCycle October 2013, Vol. 54, No. 10, p. 39

One of the remarkable stories about recycling in the U.S. is the intensive and creative approaches to introduce it even though, at first, recycling was an add-on cost to solid waste management. This occurred during the 1970s and l980s when small businesses and citizen activists, often fighting planned incinerators, began to change the rules in favor of recycling. Over the years, new rules have included mandatory household and commercial recycling, minimum content legislation, product and packaging bans, new collection equipment and routing, and more. By the mid l990s, well organized recycling started to reduce the overall costs of solid waste management for cities. This coincided with the defeat of hundreds of waste to energy proposals across the nation, making the U.S. recycling movement one of the great success stories for citizen activism and environmental progress.
Direct economic incentives to recycle were an important part of this evolution. Over 7,000 cities adopted Pay As You Throw, or weight-based collection fees. In 2004, the Recycle Bank enterprise emerged with a unique idea to reward households for recycling, based on the amount recycled each month as measured by RFID (radio frequency identification) technology that tracked the weight of each household’s recycling output. After accumulating a certain number of points (based on amount recycled), Recycle Bank provides “coupons” redeemable at local and brand name stores. This system has been adopted by numerous cities.
In 2008, a group of entrepreneurs that was impressed by Recycle Bank’s innovation began a careful examination of how it worked and new marketing options. The result was the launching of Rewards for Recycling (R4R), a private firm based in Davison, Michigan. R4R now works in 27 communities in six states covering 400,000 households.
The R4R system is adaptable to existing equipment, and will work with wheeled carts or the smaller 18-gallon recycling bins. Reporting options include truck-mounted scanners, hand-held units, remote scanning vehicles and self-reporting. The program is marketed directly to haulers as well as communities. “The perfect scenario is if the program is a separate entity within the community’s waste hauling contract, and owned by the municipality,” explains Preston Hards, R4R’s vice-president and director of marketing. “That way in the event of a hauler service change, the program belongs to the community and does not become a negotiation factor, or put the community in the position where it could be removed. And branding the program as the community’s program delivers stronger results as it builds a larger sense of community.”
Households are connected directly to the hauler or government agency through an interactive Internet network. As a marketing tool, the web page features the name of the hauler or agency; thus, for example, in Daytona Beach, Florida it is as WastePro is the local hauler. This provides familiarity for program members.

Participation Frequency

The program does not use weight or volume measurement, and does not incorporate point accruals for reward redemption. R4R tracks the frequency and occurrence of participating in curbside recycling from the households. “We feel that weight-based rewards are discriminatory,” notes Hards. “A family of six will produce more recyclable materials than the neighbor that is single with no children, however both are contributing to the program.” The process of weight measurement and data tracking can also be expensive.
The R4R philosophy is that most Americans desire instant gratification. Thus an active recycling household in the R4R program can print any of the hundreds of available savings certificates at any time, as long as they remain consistent recyclers. “We define consistent recycler as a household that is reporting recycling behavior regularly,” notes Hards. “The scale varies based on the municipality. Some areas have recycling collection weekly with the trash pick up, others are biweekly. We work with the hauler and municipality to track household participation percentages.” The result of having the rewards available immediately, he adds, is encouragement for recycling behavior — enough to create the habit.
Another component of the R4R program that contributes to continued growth is consistent promotion and education within the local markets using email, radio, TV, newspaper and direct mail. This promotional campaign also reinforces participation by local businesses. R4R has a national coupon database that delivers good value in multiple categories, including grocery, pharmacy, dining, home goods and entertainment businesses. Local business offers are featured prominently to build a ”community-theme for each locale.” This helps the local economy and results in better offers for consumers than the businesses’ traditional discount programs and often brings in more sales than their traditional advertising. “We are generating more business for participating local companies,” says Hards.
Links with haulers, government agencies, businesses, chambers of commerce and households create and reinforce the links that solidify the recycling incentive program.
Neil Seldman is cofounder and president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a 40-year-old research and technical assistance organization helping cities and businesses reach their sustainable goals.

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