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Recycling gets a ‘raise’

Marketplace Staff Apr 20, 2007

Recycling gets a ‘raise’

Marketplace Staff Apr 20, 2007

TESS VIGELAND: Sunday marks the annual celebration of our planet Earth.
No need for envy, Mars. You’ve got a candy bar.

Earth day festivities come at a sour time. Americans are throwing away record amounts of garbage.
More than 187 million tons a year.
And we only recycle a third of our solid waste.
But one company wants to boost that number.
By giving recycling a raise.
Shannon Mullen has the story.

What if your garbage could pay for your morning latte? Or maybe a new fleece jacket? The Pennsylvania-based company RecycleBank wants to give you money to spend at Starbucks, Patagonia and hundreds of other stores. All you have to do is give them your paper and plastic.

They figure, if they can get you to recycle more, your town will spend less on landfill fees, and their company can take a cut of that savings.

CEO and co-founder Ron Gonen:

RON GONEN: It’s like telling you I’ve got light bulbs that take half the amount of energy. I’ll put ’em in the building if you give me half of the dollars you save by using more efficient light bulbs.

In the case of paper and plastic, RecycleBank customers throw them all into one bin, along with their bottles and cans.

GONEN: We’re really focused on making sure that recycling is as convenient as possible, and as rewarding as possible by including everything that you could possibly recycle.

On trash day, the truck comes by, scans a built-in computer chip on the recycling bin and weighs the bin as it’s emptied. The heavier it is, the more “RecycleBank Dollars” a household earns.

So far, no one’s been caught cheating the scales. The average family can rake in up to 400 bucks a year.

People can go online to check their account balance, get an estimate of the number of trees they’ve saved, and choose the stores where they want to spend their reward money. Some of the ones on the list are Hewlett-Packard, Petco, 1-800-Flowers.

CEO Gonen says the partner companies get publicity, and consumers get peace of mind.

GONEN: We only accept partners into the RecycleBank program who have either demonstrated a commitment to sustainability or are trying to become more sustainable. So you’re gonna have an opportunity to spend your money at companies that really practice what they preach.

BOB DAVOLI: You know, in business, it’s not usual where you can make money, be green, and you know, everybody wins.

Bob Davoli is managing director with the Boston-based venture capital firm Sigma Partners, one of RecycleBank’s biggest investors. He thinks people in this country will love the concept.

DAVOLI: They’re Americans, give ’em money. Pay ’em. They’re the biggest capitalist nation in the world. It’s sad that we have to do that in some ways, if I wanted to wax philosophical, but at the end of the day, you know, it’s certainly legal, and it’s good old-fashioned American capitalism, but with a twist of helping the environment.

RecycleBank’s pilot program in Philadelphia increased recycling rates that were 5-15 percent to about 50 percent in one year. The company thinks it can replicate that success around the country. But what about America’s bad habit of over-consumption?

JENNIFER HOWARD-GRENVILLE: Recycling is a response to the waste we generate because of the things that we consume. And ultimately, the environment will be better off if we consume less.

Jennifer Howard-Grenville teaches courses on business practices and the environment at Boston University. She praises RecycleBank’s green business model and motives, but..

HOWARD-GRENVILLE: What it does not do, and what is a far, far bigger issue to address, is how do consumers simply and conveniently do the right thing around changing their consumption patterns. And the problem is, that that isn’t simple or convenient.

So Howard Grenville suggests the company could also weigh the family’s trash to see if they waste less as they recycle more.

But consumption isn’t bad, says RecycleBank’s Gonen — it’s the type of consumption you want to talk about.

GONEN: We’re not going to financially reward you for buying styrofoam or something that’s not recyclable. We’re gonna reward you for buying things that you can recycle, and only if you do actually recycle it.

RecycleBank is up and running in Delaware and New Jersey, and plans to launch in the Northeast this spring. The area looks profitable because of its population density, and the premium on landfill space.

In Massachusetts, the city of Boston pays some of the country’s highest landfill fees — almost $18 million a year. That’s because Bostonians recycle only 17 percent of their trash. That’s half the national rate. So, launching RecycleBank here could buy a lot of lattes and fleece jackets.

In Boston, I’m Shannon Mullen for Marketplace Money.

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