Every water bottle, soup can, detergent container and newspaper that Brigitte Thompson tosses into her blue, wheeled container adds up to savings for her at the grocery store and with online retailers.
The Vermont bookkeeper participates in RecycleBank's free curbside recycling program that operates in 17 states.
She redeems points every couple of months, resulting in $5 off groceries at her local Shaw's Supermarket and discounts at other retailers and restaurants.
"It's a nice incentive when you're looking at something and you're thinking, 'Am I going to chuck it or am I going to recycle it?'" says Thompson, a mom of three.
That's exactly what New York City-based RecycleBank, a for-profit company, hoped to accomplish when it began in 2004. Since then, the company says it has saved more than 1.3 million trees and more than 88 million gallons of oil.
RecycleBank has more than 285,000 active households, up from 100,000 in 2007, says spokeswoman Lisa Pomerantz. The company expects to expand into more cities and states this year.
"Our goal is to motivate you to recycle more," she says.
How it works
"The big difference is we are the carrot and not the stick. We reward you for your good behavior as opposed to fining you for any behavior you might not necessarily be doing," she says.
The company works with municipalities and private haulers to introduce the program in communities. Every household receives either a 65-gallon or 95-gallon wheeled cart that holds all recycling materials, from paper to glass to aluminum to cardboard to junk mail to phone books and more.
"We just make it super easy for the consumer," Pomerantz says.
Every container has an ID tag, which connects the household's address to a RecycleBank number. The trucks have been retrofitted to read that number and weigh the contents.
That can be accessed at recyclebank.com, where people see how many points they've earned — 1 pound becomes 2.5 RecycleBank points — as well as how many trees and gallons of oil they've saved. Laptops, MP3 players and cell phones can be mailed to the company.
The average household recycles about 80 pounds per month. That converts to $200-$300 in reward value per year, Pomerantz says. Rewards, which also can be donated to schools, range from $10 off a $50 order at Target.com to free movie tickets to discounts on items from Kraft and savings at local businesses.
"It's the rewards program that actually starts to nudge that behavior from recycling maybe just a little bit or not everything to, 'Wow, look at the value I'm getting. I can put more food on the table. I can take my kids to the movies,'" she says.
How it helps
Sometimes that happens as communities switch from "dual stream" recycling, where items have to be sorted, to "single stream" recycling with RecycleBank, Pomerantz says.
Wilmington, Del., went from zero percent recycling to a 95 percent participation rate and a 35 percent "diversion" rate, which refers to the amount of recyclable material being pulled out of the waste stream, after it started using RecycleBank, according to the company.
RecycleBank receives a cut of the savings generated by municipalities diverting waste from landfills. For example, if RecycleBank gets people to divert half of 100,000 tons of waste that was annually going to the landfill, at $70 per ton, it's a savings of $3.5 million for the municipality. RecycleBank's fees come out that.
Joseph Abate helped bring RecycleBank to Clayton, N.J., in 2006. As the chairman of the southern New Jersey town's environmental commission, he was seeking ways to increase recycling.
"Basically, like most towns, it was abysmal," he says. "I was looking for a way to increase recycling without making everybody hate the government for fining them for not recycling."
The town, which has about 7,500 residents, has doubled the amount it recycles, he says.
Abate has even noticed a change in how his two college-age kids see the value in recycling.
"My son and my daughter, who tended to be a little lazy and throw things away, they tended to see that, 'Hey, we can get rewards for recycling, so let's not throw this toothpaste cardboard container in the trash; let's put it in the recycling bin,'" he says.
RecycleBank states, as of May 2009