What Happened To Our Recycling Rewards?

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WITH RECYCLING an obvious city success, now come the questions: What happened to the rewards program and why haven’t homeowners received any information on how many coupons or points their efforts have earned. Who is messing up?

BY SARAH WHITES-KODITSCHEK/ Two summers ago, Philadelphia launched a much-celebrated rewards program to bolster Philly’s meager record on recycling.

The program offered points and prizes for homeowners willing to sort glass, paper, metals and plastic out of their trash. Special stickers were distributed so their individual blue bins could be scanned by recycling trucks. Supposedly, the total volume of recycling scanned in your neighborhood will be added up and you will become eligible for goodies based on that total.

Yet while recycling has increased in the city in recent years, reward values have dwindled. The effectiveness of the program has not been measured and willing recyclers complain they can’t get through the red tape at Recyclebank, the company which administers the program for the City.

Philadelphia’s record on recycling has significantly improved in recent years. Since adopting single-stream recycling in 2008, the city has gone from a 5-6% waste-diversion, or recycling not wasted, rate to 20%. Starting in 2010, the city added a new range of #3 through #7 plastics to its recycling system; it had started out with just #1 and #2 plastics. This year it added carton recycling.

Yet the city’s overall diversion rate still lags significantly behind national average of 34%. And recycling advocates say the city’s recycling-rewards program has major weaknesses.\Colleen Meehan, program organizer of Clean Water Action, hears complaints about discouraging online-registration glitches. “People will sign up and they won’t get the stickers, or they won’t get the stickers for like months later. I know people have been calling the customer-service line and they don’t find it as helpful as it could be.” Meehan says Recyclebank, based in New York City, is understaffed in Philadelphia.

Recycling is a money-maker for the City, but the City doesn’t kick back any of this revenue for household incentives; it all goes instead to the City’s general fund. Businesses donate awards as a form of advertising. According to Brady Russell, Eastern Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, this means rewards amount to coupons.

“If the City is going to choose to continue to operate under this “recycling pays” model for encouraging folks to recycle, then they need to pay for some of the rewards. If it’s nothing more than another way for Acme and Whole Foods to do a bit of marketing, it’s never going to be that great of a reward,” says Russell.

Despite a lack of municipal funding, Recyclebank operates much of the city’s recycling education online, and through staff outreach. Denise Diorio McVeigh, Philadelphia account manager for Recyclebank, says the program, is a “win-win-win-win.”

“We know it’s good for the environment. We know it’s good for the city: The more materials we are able to divert out of the landfill, the more savings the city is going to see and that’s good for all of us. It’s good for the resident because you feel good about your recycling efforts and you’re getting something back for your recycling efforts. And lastly, it is good for the businesses that participate with us because it drives traffic through their doors,” McVeigh enthuses.

Residents get confused about registration and cashing in points, says McVeigh, mostly because they assume rewards will arrive in the mail. In actuality, they must choose them on-line. “We’ve got over 10 categories and it ranges from museums to restaurants, to your grocery store to Philly Car Share. It really runs the gambit, so we like to say there’s something for everyone.”

Incentive-based recycling may motivate people in theory, but at this point recycling rewards may be helping more with appearances than with progress on the street. That’s the problem. Recycling here remains rewardless.

This is the first part of a two-part story. The second will appear in next week’s edition. For more information on Recycling Rewards go to www.recyclebank.com/request-info.

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