Reverse vending machines offer rewards for recycling Go

The latest statistics from the EPA reveal that when it comes to recycling, we still have a long way to go – especially for certain materials.   In the US we generate over 4lb of municipal solid waste per person – every day.  And despite the growth of recycling programs, we are still only recycling about 1/3 of the waste generated.  2010 statistics show that paper leads the pack at roughly 63% recovery, followed by metals at 35%, glass at 27% and plastics at less than 10%. 

Within each material category there are some highlights – for example 67% of steel cans are recovered and we are recycling nearly half of our aluminum beverage cans.  Again, plastic lags behind other materials and even in the beverage category less than one third of plastic bottles are recycled.   In an effort to increase recycling of these materials, many programs have been developed to help incentivize recyclers.

Recycling kiosks, also sometimes referred to as “reverse vending machines” have been used primarily for collection of beverage cans and bottles.  These systems have been available and evolving since the 1980’s.  Typically installations have been located in retail outlets or grocery stores offering redemptions in cash or point systems. 

CLYNK is a recycling company with a bottle redemption system offered exclusively through Hannaford supermarkets in Maine.  This program has a unique focus on education and has developed five modules to teach children about various aspects of recycling.  They have also developed an annual recycling competition for schools.  Mainers looking for drop off locations can search here.

Waste Management developed Greenopolis - a point based system for bottles and cans supported by an online community.  Users can redeem points for a broad variety of awards ranging from movie tickets to discount coupons at local resaurants.  Points can also be donated to charities.  Locations for Greenopolis kiosks across the country can be searched here

These systems are also moving beyond just beverage containers.   Recently, international furniture retailer, IKEA started installing machines to collect compact fluorescent light bulbs and batteries.   The ecoATM program, located primarily in southern California, uses kiosks to collect cell phones and MP3 players.

And despite the relatively high recovery rates for paper, not all paper products are recovered at the same rates.  The REMAG system has been developed specifically targeting magazines and catalogs.  While not yet in service, I have recently learned that the first wave of REMAG kiosks will soon be showing up in multiple locations in California.  Customers will be rewarded for recycling magazines and catalogs with multiple coupons of their choice.  And if the rewards are even close to those indicated in this video, users will not be getting pennies per item, but as much as $1.50 for a single magazine.

Single stream recycling: Friend or foe? Go

From Buda, Texas to Madison, Maine the trend is clear: more and more towns are moving to single stream recycling and municipal recycling rates are up.  Putting everything in one bin makes it easier for us at home and easier on collection vehicles to pick up.  (These are our tax dollars at work so we want this to be cost effective, right?) 

But from this point on, it is highly debatable whether we’ve made things better or worse.  By comingling recyclables, we’re increasing contamination and degrading the quality of the recovered material streams – especially paper streams.

And the news gets a tad more nefarious than paper people complaining about quality issues. As a society, we may be skewing the data and drawing false conclusions.  Municipal recovery rates are up. Yes… but recycling facilities are reporting that their yields are down. For example, a facility may buy 100 tons of waste paper, but when they process the paper they routinely find that 20% of the material cannot be used.  It gets sorted out and sent to landfill from the recycling facility.  We’ve moved our waste from the curb side (increasing recovery rates) but we’ve created more waste for recycling facilities (increasing industrial waste).  So are we really solving the problem?

We have a lot to learn before we know the optimal solution.  I personally think if we could get individuals to do more sorting at home we’d be better off, but for now the trend is moving the other way.  Perhaps the solution lies in technology development to create better separation facilities.  I have high hopes for technology.  After all if we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to figure out how to separate a plastic bag from a paper bag.

So what do you think?  Single stream recycling: Friend or foe?