December 19, 2007 | General

Encouraging Sustainable Recycling Behavior Through Financial Incentives

BioCycle December 2007, Vol. 48, No. 12, p. 34
RecycleBank’s rewards-based participation program began this year in Wilmington, Delaware, the company’s first large-scale client. Wilmington’s landfill diversion rate rose to 35 percent, with 90 percent biweekly participation.
Rhodes Yepsen

PERSONAL habits and behaviors can be significant obstructions to sustainable activities, where a perceived hassle limits participation. This is the focus of Dr. Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s increasingly popular scheme of Community-Based Social Marketing (CBSM), where these barriers are identified and broken down on the local level to increase involvement. According to Dr. McKenzie-Mohr’s Quick Reference guide on CBSM: “Community-based social marketing is based upon research in the social sciences that demonstrates that behavior change is most effectively achieved through initiatives delivered at the community level, which focus on removing barriers to an activity while simultaneously enhancing the activity benefits.” RecycleBank, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, exemplifies this method, linking with communities to dramatically increase recycling rates. It’s quite simple, according to Ron Gonen, CEO and cofounder of the company. Make the process easy for residents, where all curbside recyclables are placed in one cart, and offer rewards for participation.
Wilmington, Delaware implemented RecycleBank’s program citywide, making it the first large-scale application for the company. On a sunny October morning, a seemingly unlikely group congregated at the Blue Mountain materials recycling facility (MRF), located in an industrial section of Philadelphia, to celebrate. RecycleBank partnered with Blue Mountain for its capability to accept single stream recycling. Tour participants included Wilmington’s Mayor James Baker, U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-Delaware), Ron Gonen and Blue Mountain cofounder Herb Northrop. (See sidebar for more information on the Blue Mountain facility tour.)

Prior to Wilmington’s citywide rollout, RecycleBank piloted its program in two distinct neighborhoods of Philadelphia, in order to test its plan. The first stage of the pilot was for 1,200 residents in Chestnut Hill, a relatively fancy, upper-middle class neighborhood of Philadelphia. RecycleBank successfully tripled participation rates from 30 to 90 percent in a matter of months. The second area of the pilot was in West Oak Lane, a lower to middle class area, which quadrupled participation rates to 90 percent (West Oak Lane had a lower initial participation rate). These successes helped establish RecycleBank’s potential, with experience to back its ideas.
According to Scott Lamb, Senior Vice President of RecycleBank, three powerful strategies have led to the company’s success in curbing waste disposal habits. First, the collection carts are large (often 64- or 96-gallon), allowing for more capacity than a normal recycling bin. “When space is an issue, overflow immediately ends up in the trash,” says Lamb. Second, it provides a single stream recycling environment, allowing everything to be placed in one container, which couldn’t be any easier. Last, and perhaps most important, are the financial incentives, which make recycling more than just an environmentally friendly action.
Here’s how it works: Each cart has a radio frequency identification tag (RFID); the cart is weighed on the collection truck, and the RFID tag associates that weight with the individual household. The more a resident recycles, the more rewards or credits they receive, which can then be redeemed at over 300 local and national retail partners (a number that rapidly increases), for recreational pleasures (like movie tickets and lattés), as well as for basic staples (at grocery stores). RecycleBank has a single source vendor that provides McNelius equipment, and subcontracted with Avery Weigh-Tronix, which developed equipment for the scale, RFID reading, data collection and the communication and control box.
On the materials recovery side, single stream requires expensive and sophisticated machinery at the recycling plant, capable of sorting the mixture effectively and efficiently. Blue Mountain has made these investments, but reports that occasionally there are problems, such as with paper fiber – the increasing public obsession with identity protection has led to more shredding of documents, which are difficult to separate from glass. Because RecycleBank strives to break down barriers and rules that will restrict people from recycling, single stream collection remains the best option, with or without shredded paper. The company’s primary objective is to dramatically increase household recycling, reducing the human footprint by diverting recyclables from the landfill.
Amidst stacks of baled aluminum and cardboard at the Blue Mountain MRF, Senator Carper made a speech. He began with an anecdote about living in California as a young man, before his first service in the military. He owned a Karman Gia with a rebuilt engine and remembers loading up the small car with recyclables, driving it to a facility where he separated cans and bottles. Nothing had changed 36 years later, besides the location and the car. The Senator’s passion for recycling everything even led him to pull coat hangers out of the YMCA’s trash before coming to Philadelphia that day. It also led him to partner with Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
Senator Carper and Senator Snowe are cochairs of the Senate Recycling Caucus and were joined by other Senators to sponsor the RISE (Recycling Investment Saves Energy) Act. Introduced this summer, the RISE legislation would encourage the use of recycled materials by increasing their availability, such as through tax-exempt financing of recycling equipment. At the MRF, Carper spoke broadly of the importance of such legislation, beyond issues of space conservation, pointing out how it would decrease our dependence on foreign oil and save money. For instance, recycled aluminum, the golden child of the recycling world, takes 95 percent less energy to produce, with 95 percent fewer emissions, when compared to cans made from virgin materials. At around $1,600 per ton, profit margins on recycled aluminum are high. Unfortunately, aluminum cans make up less than 1.5 percent of the single stream composition, whereas glass, with a negative market value, weighs in at nearly 23 percent.

According to John Rago, Director of Communications and Policy Development for Wilmington Mayor James Baker, the state of Delaware has not been very progressive when it comes to recycling. Rago describes Wilmington’s search for a recycling program as part of Mayor Baker’s greening efforts. The Wilmington landfill services the city of 73,000, plus half a million from the surrounding county, and space is limited. “An additional landfill would have been costly, and wouldn’t solve the problem, so we worked with what we already had,” says Rago. The solution was diversion from the landfill, and in the search for a recycling program the Mayor’s office found RecycleBank.
What the city liked about RecycleBank’s model was single-stream curbside recycling, plus rewards. Both of these aspects were of vital importance to encourage participation, Rago notes, because implementing a new recycling program involves a process of changing behaviors. With no state-led effort, concerned citizens in Wilmington, like Senator Carper, were taking recyclables to “igloos” around the city, separating materials by hand. However, participation was extremely low, at two percent.
Since adopting RecycleBank’s program, Wilmington’s participation rate has jumped to 65 percent, and that only represents people who recycle every week. Extend those statistics to every other week participation, and it reaches 90 percent. In terms of a diversion rate from the landfill, Wilmington is at almost 35 percent (6,700 tons), placing it in the lead for cities in the area. Not including organics, the waste stream in Wilmington is estimated to be 50 to 60 percent recyclables. “The city is meeting all of the goals for the RecycleBank program; citizens are helping the environment and participants are in turn being rewarded,” Rago says proudly.
A six-month pilot program in Wilmington, rolled out in June 2006 for approximately 6,000 households, demonstrated that citywide recycling would work. The city previously had two trash collection days per week, and it simply turned one of those into a recycling day. “We have our own sanitation crew, with 12 collection routes in the city. The trucks collect the recyclables, take them to a staging area in Wilmington, and then they are sent to the Blue Mountain facility in Philadelphia,” describes Rago. He says that initial complaints were minimal, and revolved primarily around losing a trash collection day. Residents worried about trash piling up, but soon realized that they generated significantly less trash when recycling regularly.
The program went citywide in 2007, servicing 20,000 out of 24,000 households, at no extra cost to residents. This gap of 4,000 primarily consists of people who haven’t been participating, and vacant properties. RecycleBank provided the carts free of cost to the households, and charges the city a monthly fee per household participating. Because the fee is based on the number of carts on the street, both the city and RecycleBank continue to do audits: If a cart isn’t being used it is pulled out of circulation. For outreach, RecycleBank conducts door-to-door visits and mailings to each home. The mailings thank those who are participating, and ask those who are not to reconsider. Residents who respond to the inquiry are given a cart again, to begin participating.
Overall, 80 to 85 percent of the city is serviced, with pilot programs in schools and plans to expand into businesses and multiple housing units. “We recycle in City Hall, with a different account for each department. The Mayor’s office has an account, and we decide collectively what to spend the rewards on. It’s quite fun, and responsible!” Rago exclaims. Although there has been an increase of $150,000 to the city’s $3,500,000 annual expenses for trash disposal, Rago says they will save money in the long run, since it is cheaper to pay RecycleBank than the landfill, especially as tip fees at the landfill increase. They hope to see savings once the diversion rate has increased to 40 to 45 percent.
“We’re thrilled to have 35 percent diversion,” notes Rago. “The key for us is customer service. We were very leery of turning any customer service over to an outside vendor. But, RecycleBank has been great: residents call RecycleBank with any questions about their rewards, problems concerning their carts, adding vendors, etc.” RecycleBank opened up its rewards program, allowing any retailer to become a partner. Wilmington has 140 retail reward partners, including many local mom and pop stores.

Back at RecycleBank’s offices in downtown Philadelphia, lunch is served. Sue Igoe, Managing Director of Marketing Initiatives and Strategic Relationships, mentions a new venture involving recycling kiosks, which would be placed in apartments, dormitories and office buildings that aren’t currently serviced by RecycleBank, and often lack recycling programs entirely. The kiosks operate similarly to curbside accounts, linking to an online rewards account. After lunch Gonen explains the kiosks in more detail, highlighting it as just one of many new technological innovations to advance recycling. These advancements are what set RecycleBank apart, he remarks, because innovation has been relatively stagnant in the recycling industry. There is a prototype of the kiosk, with plans to launch it in New York City. The kiosk differs from refund/deposit systems currently used in states like New York, where people redeem bottles and cans at machines in supermarkets and are paid their container deposit fee. That system, observes Gonen, is not necessarily an environmental friendly model – although it encourages recycling, it also necessitates driving. The RecycleBank kiosks will only be located inside of buildings, requiring residents to walk their recyclables to the drop off point. It will therefore be much easier to establish an environmental footprint, an important component of RecycleBank’s actions.
Gonen’s sights are set internationally, believing that the company can move into any area or country interested in boosting its recycling rates. The company is currently in discussions with potential clients in Canada. “Most recycling facilities are operating at 50 percent of their capacity, and are excited to work with RecycleBank – the demand for recycled materials is greater than the supply,” says Gonen. Facilities would therefore expand when the recycling rate is high enough to necessitate more capacity. RecycleBank plans to open the rewards program to a wider range of green activities (and not just for curbside customers), such as bringing bags to the grocery store, biking to work and recycling electronics and tires. Although this may be difficult to imagine, it was a similar vision that birthed RecycleBank.
An In Business article (September/October 2005) tells of the trouble Gonen and his cofounder had when dealing with municipalities which were interested but not exactly eager to take on RecycleBank. Gonen now says that he’s learned to adjust to the sale-cycle of municipalities, which is a long and sometimes slow process. As far as positive surprises, he’s appreciative of the strong team of coworkers, many of whom left important jobs, positions that they’d held for a long time, to join RecycleBank. And from what I can tell, the employees seem happy to join him, with idealism still not tempered by age.
THE Blue Mountain Recycling facility, which opened in 1999, processes the curbside recyclables from RecycleBank’s two Philadelphia pilot programs and the city of Wilmington, plus some from other cities, currently taking in a total of 12,000 tons/month. In September 2005, Blue Mountain was purchased by FCR Recycling, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems, Inc., a solid waste services company.
The facility tour began where the collection trucks arrive. Blue Mountain accepts both dual and single stream recyclables, therefore the tipping floor consists of three different areas: single stream residential (i.e., from Wilmington, Delaware) on one side; source separated containers on the other; and single stream office recyclables (from desk-side containers) in the middle.
With the single stream, first cardboard is separated out. Then the stream moves to a V screen, where 3D objects (containers) are permitted to drop down, and 2D items (paper) are conveyed up. An air stream is utilized to help lift up paper. Afterwards, quality control is performed with 8 to 10 workers, depending on how much has been collected. The facility is 80 to 90 percent efficient with the screens, achieving a higher rate with workers pulling out the excess.
The glass is either sized to 3/8-inch minus and turned into a synthetic aggregate, or it is sent to a glass processor who uses optical sorters so the material can be turned back into glass bottles. As a synthetic aggregate, the engineered glass aggregate is a replacement for stone. However, the strength of the Pennsylvania quarry industry makes the long-term viability of glass aggregates unstable. Therefore, at the beginning of 2007 Blue Mountain focused increasingly on turning the glass back into glass. “A lion’s share of the glass we take in goes to glass processors,” says Robert Anderson, who works in Business Development at Blue Mountain. The glass processors use optical sorting to separate brown, green and clear glass, enabling a higher quality recycled glass.
Blue Mountain uses two types of magnets to separate metals. The first is a standard magnet to pull tin out of the mix. The second is a magnetic field that creates an eddy-current, which repels aluminum. When an aluminum can meets the eddy-current, it is thrown off the belt and into the aluminum hopper.
THE lack of citywide curbside recycling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has led residents to seek alternatives. This past summer, John MacDuffie Woodburn, who goes by “Woody,” and his housemate Pete Malandra launched a bicycle-powered recycling collection program called WoodyRecycle. “I got the idea for using a bike with a trailer because it would cost too much to buy a truck, not to mention insurance and gas,” explains Woody, who is a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently collects bottles and cans from a FIUME, a West Philadelphia bar where manager Kevin Holland is happy to pay a small fee for the service. “It’s terrible that bars and restaurants in Philly still get away with putting hundreds of bottles and cans in the garbage every night,” says Holland.
Recyclables are biked across the Grey’s Ferry Bridge to the Blue Mountain materials recycling facility (MRF), where RecycleBank sends its materials. Woody and Dunstan, his first employee, used to get funny looks when driving the bike-cart onto a scale at the MRF. Now truck drivers give them friendly nods. Woody plans on expanding his service to other interested businesses in West Philadelphia, offering a profit sharing scheme – as a business saves money by reducing the volume of its garbage, it can in turn pass along some of those savings to WoodyRecycle.
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