Making Recycling Really Pay

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A woman recycles at a RecycleBank kiosk.

I have a confession to make: I am a bad recycler. I have excellent intentions, and at my Brooklyn apartment the week always starts with assiduously divided trash: paper, plastic and aluminum. But then the days pass, the garbage builds up, and too often I find myself tossing out the milk cartons with the newspaper with the bottles of Sam Adams beer. I know — take away my green card.

But I'm not alone in my failings. There's nothing more stereotypically green than an avid recycler — and nothing more rare in real life. Though environmentalists have been pushing recycling for years now, and curbside pickup is increasingly the norm, recycling rates in America remain low. We care about reducing waste and saving the Earth, but sometimes it's Thursday night, Lost is on — and dividing the trash is just too much trouble.

Ron Gonen, though, is going to make recycling worth your while. The former management consultant co-founded RecycleBank in 2004 with a simple idea: that people want to recycle, but they just need a little push. So Gonen decided to appeal to their pocketbooks. Here's how it works: every family on a garbage route is issued a special container with a computer chip. When garbage trucks pick up the recycling, they weigh the container and record how much each family is recycling by weight. The more you recycle, the more RecycleBank points you earn, which can be redeemed for offers at merchants like CVS/pharmacy. It's that easy. Since RecycleBank launched in Philadelphia in 2006, its formula has led to unqualified success everywhere it has gone — and it now operates through much of the Northeast U.S. Recycling rates in one of the first Philadelphia neighborhoods that RecycleBank served rose from 7% to 90% in a matter of months and total waste sent to landfills is down considerably. "Recycling is something you can do today that has a significant environmental impact on the way you live," says Gonen. "It touches your life." (Hear Gonen talk about RecycleBank on this week's Greencast.)

To Gonen, the key to RecycleBank's success isn't just the economic incentive; it's also about a sense of accomplishment. By actually tracking what individual families recycle, the service gives people a more accurate idea of what they're doing for the Earth. You know that your recycling is being counted, not just tossed down a landfill. Metrics matter — measuring something is the first step to encouraging better behavior. "There's so little measurement around recycling," says Gonen, a Columbia Business School grad who came up with the RecycleBank concept in class. "But RecycleBank tries to ensure that everything we do is measured — and we share those numbers."

Gonen, whose company is being flooded with offers from venture capitalists, wants to grow RecycleBank gradually. But earlier this year he went after a new target: college campuses. Starting with a pilot program at New York City's Columbia University, RecycleBank is putting special kiosks in cafeterias and dorms. Each student gets a RecycleBank card and takes their recycling to the closest kiosk, where they swipe their card, weigh their recycling and claim their points. The campus model required a little tweaking on Gonen's part — the dorm kiosks, he notes, are prank-proof (you can douse them in beer, and they'll still work) — but it's been an early success at Columbia, where school officials are happy for any way to green their university. "Columbia recycles, but there's always room for improvement," says Nilda Mesa, Columbia's assistant vice president in the office of environmental stewardship. "This was a way to reinforce the message that recycling is really important."

Just how important recycling is becomes clear when you see the lines of trucks taking away New York City's waste, much of which has to be shipped to Pennsylvania or even as far away as South Carolina. More recycling means less waste in the landfill, which means fewer garbage trucks, which means fewer carbon emissions. As commodity prices for raw materials like aluminum or plastic rises in response to global demand, recycling makes even better economic sense as well. Coca-Cola, which currently recycles 10% of the plastic it uses and is aiming to raise that to 30% by 2010, recently began building a massive recycling facility — Coke wants to save money, not just the Earth.

But the biggest benefit to recycling might be psychological. Start recycling regularly — and successfully — and you'll begin thinking a bit more about your impact on the Earth. "There are so many environmental initiatives out there that are important," says Gonen. "Solar, wind, biofuels. But these are all huge, capital-intensive projects. Most of us can't do that, but everyone can recycle." I just hope RecycleBank comes to Brooklyn soon — my newspapers are piling up.