Gift that keeps on giving
Incentive-driven recycling program RecycleBank gets a Chicago test-drive.
Select residents in the 5th, 8th and 19th Wards have an extra incentive to go green. RecycleBank, a New York City–based company, offers redeemable rewards points for recycling. Over the past year, the six-year-old company has been giving South Shore, Woodlawn, Stony Island, Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood residents in its local pilot program prizes ranging from Amazon.com gift cards to discounts at the Shedd Aquarium simply for taking time to sort their plastics and other recyclables.
Launched last August, RecycleBank’s two-year test of 7,000 households hits the halfway mark this week. The company won’t yet say how well the pilot run performed over the last year or how exactly it’s being judged by the Department of Streets and Sanitation, which will decide next year whether to adopt the program citywide, says Atul Nanda, RecycleBank’s Midwest region vice president. (Streets & San rep Rosa Calderon says the department isn’t discussing the program at this point because it’s still analyzing the first-year numbers.) But for a city in which expansion of the Blue Cart program has stalled and only eight percent of all residential waste collected by Streets & San is recycled (according to a 2009 study by the Department of Environment), RecycleBank could be a much-needed shot in the arm.
RecycleBank participants put recyclables into blue bins equipped with digital memory chips, Nanda explains. The company leases city recycling trucks to pick up the waste and haul it to recycling centers, scans the chips and takes inventory of the weight of each household’s recyclables. Consumers are then awarded points based on how much they recycle: A pound of recyclables earns 2.5 points; rewards start at 40 points. A $10 Bed Bath & Beyond gift certificate, for instance, is worth 100 points. While several national chains such as Target and CVS accept the rewards points, the majority are locally owned businesses and institutions, such as the Chicago Children’s Museum, Kingston Mines and Leona’s.
RecycleBank maintains footholds in 300 communities across 25 states, including Philadelphia, Houston, Phoenix and Atlanta, that have shown higher levels of recycling when a reward is involved. “In the Midwest region, we’ve seen communities increase their recycling anywhere from 25 to 200 percent,” Nanda says. “One community [Westland, Michigan] increased by 300 percent.”
The company aims to provide recycling services without putting a dent in the city budget. “The city gives us a baseline of the average amount that each ward recycles and pays us $20 for every extra ton we dispose of,” Nanda says. “Since Chicago already had a recycling system in place and we didn’t have to buy things like trucks or bins, it didn’t cost the city anything to implement the program. They’re just paying us money that they would have paid to dispose of the waste anyway.” (Streets & San’s Calderon wouldn’t comment.)
According to a city-funded study released in April, Chicago generates 7.3 tons of waste each year. About 15 percent comes from residential homes. While eight percent of residential waste makes it into city recycling, reuse and compost programs, the rest heads to landfills—and taxpayers shell out for every foot of landfill space the city uses. Currently, the city forks over $30.50 per ton to stash waste in a landfill, meaning yearly trash bills top $222 million. Reducing that amount via recycling programs like RecycleBank, aside from the environmental benefits, could save the city millions.
Nanda says RecycleBank hopes to expand to other parts of the city by 2011. The ultimate goal is to be in more than 1 million households. “We’re trying to create a system that makes people want to recycle,” he says.