In the world of environmentalism, “market-driven” can be a dirty word, a thematic hangover from the sixties when it was widely believed that altruism and common sense should be enough to stop us from wrecking our planet. Alas, that kind of idea had more to do with wishful thinking than human nature, and in recent years the idea of using economic incentives to drive environmentally responsible behavior has gained currency.

One company taking that approach is RecycleBank, which uses innovative tracking and identification technology to reward folks for recycling.

It works like this: Households participating in the RecycleBank program are supplied with bins fitted with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. Recycling trucks belonging to municipalities or independent waste management companies are then equipped with RFID reading equipment. The reader scans the bins as they're being tipped into the truck, and records how much contents of the container weigh.

After the trucks complete their route, the data they've collected is transferred wirelessly to the RecycleBank system, which assigns reward dollars to participating households based on the weight of their recycled materials. The rewards—up to $35 a month—can be used to purchase goods and services from partners like IKEA, Whole Foods, and Timberland.

CEO Ron Gonen explains that RecycleBank wants to help bring environmentally sound thinking further into the mainstream. “We're a business which focuses on demonstrating that environmental solutions can also be economically profitable,” he says.

The RecycleBank concept has a couple of things going for it that may give it some traction, the reward dollars topping the list. Another plus is that it’s a single-stream recycling program, meaning that all recyclables can be mixed together in the bins, rather than having to be sorted beforehand. By accommodating two universal human characteristics—acquisitiveness and sloth—RecycleBank hopes to vastly increase the amount of material being diverted from landfills.

Does it work? In the RecycleBank pilot project in two Philadelphia neighborhoods, households participating in recycling rose to 90 percent within six months, up from 35 percent in one area and 7 percent in the other. Since then, the program has expanded to cover almost 50,000 households in the United States.

This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in October 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007