Recycling is a lot like working out — you know you should do it, but at the end of a long Monday when the dirty dishes are piled up in the sink and the couch never looked so inviting, if often gets pushed back to Tuesday, or Wednesday, or… never. Ron Gonen knows a lot about that lack of motivation. That’s why in 2004 he co-founded Recyclebank, a program that makes recycling worth your while.
The concept behind Recyclebank is simple: because economic incentives motivate recycling more effectively than green principles, reward people for recycling and watch the rates soar. The Recyclebank system is quick and painless: each customer on the garbage route gets a bin fitted with a computer chip. When garbage trucks pick up the bins, they weigh the bins and scan the cards, keeping track of how much each family is recycling. For every pound of material recycled, participants earn 2.5 Recyclebank points (up to about 400 points per month), which can then be cashed in at retailers like Bed, Bath and Beyond, CVS Pharmacy, and Petco.
The program has worked so well that it’s swelled from one small operation in Philly to a system cities across the nation are adopting. It may even go international. Recently, Plenty talked with Ron about putting a price on the environment, hammering out kinks in recycling kiosks, and how to get Recyclebank into your community.
Q: Everybody knows they should recycle, but often don’t. What is it about Recyclebank’s system that gets people off the couch and over to their recycling bins?
A: Ron Gonen: What ultimately works about Recyclebank is that we provide motivation for recycling by rewarding people with Recyclebank reward points that they can redeem at retailers across the country. People are starting to realize that throwing waste in garbage isn’t free; it’s going to cost you money because the government is using your tax dollars to pay to put your waste in a landfill. But if you recycle your waste with Recyclebank, we’re able to pass some of the value of recycling back to the homeowner. Right now we reward people with about $400 per month in points, which is worth of a lot for a lot of families. This program helps to make sure people understand there’s a value in being environmentally conscious.
And the technology makes it easy for cities to use, right?
Recyclebank introduced a technology that enables us to track how much individual families are recycling with its Radio Frequency Identification chips. Each week, when your recycling is collected, these “smart carts” complete with a chip are scanned and weighed right at your curb. The system records the weight, converts it to points, and credits that amount directly to your account. Through the availability of the technology and the idea of rewarding people, we were able to get cities interested in Recyclebank.
What about the companies that participate in the program? What’s in it for them?
Participating in this program provides a great opportunity for businesses to get their brand out in front of many thousands of households and let people know that they care about the environment. It’s a great advertising opportunity, and since we don’t charge for advertising, the only thing that we ask is that in return the businesses must honor the Recyclebank points. Right now we have approximately 400 reward partners, everyone from national businesses like Kraft and Coca-Cola to a host of regional and local businesses.
Have any communities had trouble incorporating Recyclebank’s system?
So far, everything has been running well. We haven’t had many problems because we’ve tried to grow the business in a very focused manner. When first starting out, we knew that we had an idea that would be popular and create tremendous demand, and rather than trying to fill out the program too quickly, we decided to keep our focus first on operational excellence and great service to our current customer. That focus on service first is what has allowed us to avoid hitting any snags.
What happens if customers exceed the $400 rewards limit?
A lot of customers max out because the program is so well-liked that people are recycling everything that they possibly can. So in order to continue to motivate people to recycle even after they’ve hit their rewards limit, we’ve decided to provide additional opportunities to earn more points through the recycling of other items like cell phones. And in the next few months we’ll be rolling out more opportunities for people to recycle materials such as food waste. We would also like to continue to add information about what people can do for the environment in their local communities, so we’re working on a “green search” function on the homepage. Our goal is to be the complete environmental service provider to the communities that we serve.
Will that include expanding to recycle industrial waste?
We will be providing commercial service in 2009 to help companies to recycle. We decided to do this after a number of work partners asked if we could develop a commercial rewards program for them. It will work similar to the residential program.
And your residential programs don’t just serve individual houses. Recyclebank recently rolled out its first apartment complex kiosk in Wilmington, Delaware and is also using kiosks in a pilot program currently running at Columbia. How are the kiosks working out so far?
The kiosks are working great and we’re very excited about them. People simply bring their bag of recyclables to the kiosk and weigh it there to get their points. Currently the kiosks are in all the freshman dorms at Columbia and we expect to get kiosks in all the dorms next semester. The pilot program gives us an opportunity to work out bugs and kinks and make sure we fully understand how to make the kiosks work right before expanding their use.
How do you pick which places to expand to next?
We tend to seek out places with a lot of people but not a lot of landfill space, but for the most part, it’s word of mouth. People learn about us and give us a call. We’re also in the process of building a sales force to talk with different cities about Recyclebank’s opportunities. Right now we’re .providing service in over 10 states and have over a million homes under contract. We’re also currently in discussions with communities in England who want to use Recyclebank’s services.
Wow, Recyclebank sounds like a win-win plan for everyone! How can people get Recyclebank to come to their neighborhood?
Call your mayor! Tell them that you want to get rewarded for recycling.
Story by Jessica A. Knoblauch. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.