Relearning to Recycle Streamlining the Process (and Reaping Rewards) with RecycleBan

It costs Connecticut towns $72 to haul one ton of trash to a landfill. Last year, Hartford produced 109,000 tons. In an effort to curb the capitol’s waste accumulation, Mayor Eddie Perez is launching a new recycling program, and there’s more in it for residents than a healthy planet.

Hartford is allying with RecycleBank, an Internet-based company from New York City that rewards recyclers for giving back to the environment. Through an online points system, residents who recycle will be awarded vouchers for discounts at over 400 local and chain businesses. Stores like Shaw’s Supermarkets, Starbucks, Zales Jewelry, Panera, Sephora and Regal Cinemas, as well as several local shops, participate in the rewards program. According to RecycleBank CEO Ron Gonen, 50 percent of the partner companies are native to Connecticut’s capitol. These include Sisters Restaurant, House of Flora Flower Market and A Little TLC Beauty Shop.

Gonen cofounded the recycling company in 2005, and developed it from a business plan he crafted during a two-year graduate program at Columbia Business School. The initiative, as he saw it, would bolster area ecological efforts while stimulating the economy.

“Our goal at RecycleBank is to ensure that people understand that being environmentally conscious is also smart economics,” he says. “That newspaper you throw in the garbage is going to cost your city money to throw it in a landfill, but if you recycle it, it’s going to save your town money, and it’s going to make a lot of people in other industries money, because they’re going to use that recycled paper to further their own business.”

RecycleBank works to make sure homeowners see some of the incentive, too. For every pound of cans, paper and aluminum deposited in a residence recycling bin, the homeowner receives 2.5 “RecycleBank Points.” For the 5,000 Hartford residents included in the program, 450 RecycleBank Points can be earned each month, with a possible accumulation of 5,400 by the end of the one-year pilot.

Hartford’s new recycling initiative not only involves a homeowner reward incentive, but also a change in the way residential recycling happens. Before the city’s “Go Green, Use Blue” venture with RecycleBank, recycling operated through a dual-stream process. This required residents to separate recyclable paper and cardboard from other items like plastics, steel and aluminum. With the RecycleBank program, all recyclable materials can be deposited into a single place.

© RecycleBank

This change is expected to make a huge difference in the rate of resident compliance. According to Jeff Duvall, senior operations analyst at Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority in Hartford, the switch from dual- to single-stream recycling has created significant recycling increases in other states, especially in urban centers.

“In the big cities, there isn’t a lot of single-family housing,” he says. “So, when you’ve got multiple families living in a single residence, there’s not space to have a bunch of recycling bins for each family to separate their paper from their plastic. Thirty blue bins in front of one house would be a nightmare,” Duvall says, “so people don’t bother as much with recycling.”

By the end of May, each of the 5,000 Hartford residences used during the pilot program will receive a 64-gallon recycling cart in which to deposit their paper, aluminum and #1 and #2 plastics instead of the standard 14-gallon bin. Attached to each “Smart Cart” is a Radio-Frequency Identification Chip (RFIC) that contains residents’ RecycleBank account information used to award points for recycling. On trash collection days, the recycling carts are scanned and weighed right at street curbs. The weights are instantly transferred to homeowners’ RecycleBank online accounts and converted into award point values. Account holders can then redeem their points by “shopping” for store vouchers through Purchased items are sent to account holders through e-mail or regular postal service.

And RecycleBank has recently added “E-Waste Recycling” to its program. Now, along with common recyclables, residents can deposit old cell phones, computers, printer toner cartridges and other electronics into their Smart Bins and receive points.

Hartford’s Director of Communications Sarah Barr says the residences used for the city’s pilot program were determined by the Department of Public Works as those that “needed a little extra push” to recycle. Ideally, city officials would like recycling rates to double.

Connecticut’s capitol may see just that. RecycleBank’s efforts to bolster recycling rates in the towns in which it’s contracted have not only brought overwhelming success, but also much media acclaim. Since the program’s first city project with two neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it’s received awards from the National Recycling Coalition and Social Venture Network, as well as Philadelphia’s own Environmental Council. RecycleBank was given the 2006 Corporate Environmental Award from Waste News and was featured in Incentive Magazine as one of the “Top Seven Incentive Programs of 2006.”

Wilmington, Delaware, the third town to partner with RecycleBank, can attest to the company’s achievements. Though Delaware is one of a small group of states that does not require its residents to recycle, the town’s officials sought to increase its diversion of trash from area landfills. So, in April 2006, Wilmington contracted with RecyclwBank in a half-year pilot program involving 6,000 town residences in six different Wilmington regions. The recycling initiative now runs citywide. The town has saved over $500,000 in “tipping fee” costs [charges for hauling waste to landfills], thanks to a 64 percent diversion rate. In a letter to RecycleBank from Wilmington Mayor James Baker, he writes that in 2007 alone, Wilmington residents kept 8,800 tons of garbage from going to landfills.

Wilmington’s Assistant Sanitation Supervisor Jason Leary sees a major change in residents’ attitudes toward recycling since RecycleBank came to their doors. “We [the Sanitation Department] used to get angry calls from people when our garbage trucks would miss a house or when there’d be something that needed to get cleaned up in the streets,” he says. “Now, people are calling when there’s something wrong with their recycling carts. They don’t want anyone messing with those cans,” Leary says, “because when you mess with those, you mess with money.”

Dan Keashan, the town spokesperson for Cherry Hill, New Jersey, says the program changed recycling habits there, too. The township was the second locale to partner with RecycleBank, and Keashan describes the recycling change as “nothing short of tremendous.” Cherry Hill’s pilot program observed the recycling rates of 950 selected homes, and within six months, per-house recycling jumped from nine pounds per week to 17. “RecycleBank has helped Cherry Hill to not just be better recyclers,” Keashan says, “but through the recycling, our township has seen real aesthetic improvement. On a windy day, I used to see cans, bottles and paper flying through the streets, but not anymore,” he says. On June 2, the RecycleBank project will expand to include all 20,000 residents of Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

“RecycleBank is an absolute winner,” Keashan says. “If Hartford [Connecticut] is anything like Cherry Hill, its recycling patterns stand to really benefit from what RecycleBank has to offer.”