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Recycling as the gateway to sustainable living

5 min read


There have been many conversations recently around the efficacy of recycling as an environmentally beneficial behavior, including Alina Tugend’s New York Times article, “Recycling Helps, but It’s Not All You Can Do for the Environment,” which includes perspectives from the Environmental Defense Fund, Center for Research on Environmental Decisions and other respected voices in the industry.

I wanted to share another perspective, one that is more optimistic about recycling and the impact it has on other environmental behaviors.

While the Environmental Protection Agency affirms the 33% average rate of recycling municipal solid waste cited by Samantha MacBride cites in “Recycling Reconsidered,” this number doesn’t paint the full picture. On the contrary, it is actually misleading. One, the definition of what is recyclable varies dramatically from community to community. Few communities collect metal, all types of glass, all forms of paper and paperboard, and plastics Nos. 1 through 7.

Two, the average naturally doesn’t speak to the communities that are recycling above this number. California communities have done an astounding job of setting high targets and achieving them — for example, setting a goal in 1989 to recycle 50% of its waste by 2000 and exceeding that by eight percentage points. The state has since set a goal of 75% diversion by 2020.  Three, the national rate doesn’t take into account grass-roots programs initiated by people who want to do more to creatively reduce their trash output, such as composting, clothing drops-offs, No. 5 plastic and plastic-bag collection and upcycling.

I also don’t want to discount the environmental impact of recycling — the EPA reported that U.S. emissions were cut by 182 million metric tons through recycling in 2008. This does not include what is composted or used in waste-to-energy plants to generate power. According to the EPA, that much recycling is like taking 33 million cars off the road for a year. Though we could be recycling more, that is a significant impact.

Incentives, and recycling as a gateway

There are many factors at play when we think about the incentives for recycling at a community level — tipping fees, commodity revenue and infrastructure. At an individual level, we’ve learned that a mix of economic and social motivating factors, when packaged with education, deepens participation in recycling programs and bolsters engagement around other sustainable actions.

This mix includes a combination of economic currency, through individual rewards and economic benefit for local businesses; social currency as it relates to elements of competition (gamification or “gaming for good”); the personal affirmation that comes with sharing your eco-deeds with your online community or social network; and impact currency, where the actions are measurable and trackable so people understand the effects of their actions in the context of collective actions.

Through joint efforts with the communities, waste haulers and citizens of the communities we serve, we’ve helped to substantially move the needle on recycling rates in communities across the U.S. and the U.K. We have more than 4.4 million members coming to our community asking the same question that Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council asked in the New York Times article: “We recycle, what else can we do?”

Though, as MacBride says, many may believe there is more being achieved than there actually is, I believe it’s because they’re assuming everyone else is doing what they’re doing. That’s where our job comes in. We’ve found success in rewarding the eco-minded stars of the community, as they in turn evangelize the benefits of recycling and other environmental behaviors to their neighbors.  As such, we do not discount the impact of recycling on other eco-actions.

Unlike CRED, I tend to look at the single action from a glass-half-full perspective — we’ve learned from our members that recycling is more like a gateway activity. They may have come to us through their community recycling program, but our program and platform have helped change their behavior around water usage, overall waste reduction, energy reduction and other more sustainably minded habits. I’d again have to side with the NRDC on this one.

There is no silver bullet to move people to use resources in a more sustainable manner; every country and community is different in beliefs and goals. While we’re waiting for better regulation and private-sector participation, we can bring individuals and communities into this movement through the things that interest them most; for our members, that is social networking, games, rewards and reflecting their personal impact analytics.

By showing people that doing their part can make a difference in the collective and also provide personal economic value, we are finding that we really can make a measurable impact on the environment.

Erika Diamond is the vice president of community solutions at Recyclebank, a New York City-based company that rewards people for taking everyday green actions with discounts and deals from local and national businesses. She oversees the community-focused portion of the product team focusing on the curbside recycling product.