The problem, as far as I’m concerned, that’s dogged recycling and other waste-management programs in the US? There just hasn’t been enough incentive for people to participate in them. Recycling here is neither government-mandated nor is it part of our general cadre of values, as it may once have been back in pioneer days. Americans are not penalized for generating massive amounts of waste, the way they are in Europe, where the more trash you produce, the more you pay to have it carted away. And even though people today are more conscious of the positive consequences of making green choices, government institutions have been slow to strengthen infrastructures that would make recycling or managing waste easier and more environmentally friendly.

Ron Gonen, recently profiled in Entrepreneur, may have found one solution. His company RecycleBank provides homeowners with large boxes, coded with a radio frequency ID chip, into which people can throw recyclables. When the boxes are emptied, RecycleBank records how much has been recycled and translates the results into reward points that can be redeemed at stores like Whole Foods and Starbucks.

The boxes and the service are free for homeowners—RecycleBank makes money by keeping a percentage of the money that cities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Delaware save by using the service. Wilmington, Delaware, which used to spend $3 million a year on throwing its residents’ waste away, has cut that figure down by half. According to Gonen, RecycleBank’s customers have diverted more than 19,500 tons of stuff from the waste stream—and subsequently redeemed over 3 million reward points.

The only way to reduce waste on the scale we need to is to make people pay for it, or reward them when they turn their rubbish into something positive. RecycleBank, one of the more creative solutions I’ve seen, seems to benefit everyone involved: homeowners, for whom the service is free; cities, who end up spending less and filling less landfill; and RecycleBank itself, because the more people recycle, the more money it makes. Gonen hopes to take the project nationwide this year. I’ll be waiting to see the bins show up on my block!

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008