Like reducing vehicular emissions, recycling can have a profound effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions — the EPA notes that municipal solid waste recycling in 2006 eliminated almost 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Many cities across the U.S. are turning to the private sector — which Martin calls “a tremendous ally” — to aid them in recycling efforts. But some companies offer recycling solutions other than hauling services. 

One such company, Recyclebank, has partnered with over 300 communities since being founded in 2004, according to CEO Javier Flaim. 

In a nutshell, Recyclebank and companies like it give people points for recycling, which they can then use towards discounts at businesses.

“We exist to incentivize and educate residents to try to improve their recycling habits, to try to better the type of materials that they’re recycling and make sure they’re recycling correctly, and of course, ideally also reducing the amount of waste that a household throws away,” he says.

As part of a larger group of sustainability programs, Hollywood, Fla. (pop. 151,998) partnered with Recyclebank from 2010 until the contract expired in 2015, according to Hollywood Public Information Manager Joann Hussey.  A procurement policy required the city to bid for a new service at the contract’s end, and Recyclebank submitted again.

“Recyclebank is a great company… and we definitely liked them,” Hussey says. “[We] had a really good partnership.” 

Nevertheless, the city had experienced problems with Recyclebank’s technology, and a bid from a smaller company called Recycling Perks offered better technology, better pricing and services that better aligned with its citizenry at the time. Moreover, a three year Recyclebank contract with the city would have cost about $27,000 more than a three-year Recycling Perks contract. So Hollywood chose Recycling Perks and implemented its program in the city in September 2016.

In Hollywood’s implementation of Recycling Perks’ program, a city resident with a dedicated recycling can signs up with Recycling Perks online in order to participate. Each time a hauler collects waste from the resident’s recycling can, GPS locator technology notes it, and the resident’s account is credited with points, no matter how much material is in the can. 

The points can then be used towards discounts at national and local businesses or towards magazine subscriptions. 

When the city began its contract, it launched a public awareness campaign, and nearly 5,000 people signed up, Hussey says. Since the active campaign ended, the new customer participation rate has waned, although people are still signing up. Altogether, Hussey estimates the city’s recycling rate at 20 percent.

“We’re working on improving those numbers,” she says.

Hussey says that the program, grouped with Hollywood’s other sustainability programs, is an intangible benefit to the city in pursuing its green efforts and goals. But she admits that the program is a cost to the city, and that the city doesn’t make money offering the program.

“There’s more of a cost to offer this program,” she says. “So we can do the right thing here in Hollywood to encourage people to recycle, versus saving the money by putting all the stuff that could be recycled in the trash.”

Phoenix began a nearly $6 million, three-year contract with Recyclebank in January as part of a larger city goal to divert 40 percent of its waste by 2020, according to Phoenix Deputy Public Works Director for Solid Waste Services Brandie Barrett.

By the end of February, Phoenix had accumulated nearly 35,000 subscriptions and over 40,000 online logins in the program. At that time, 174 local businesses had also partnered with Recyclebank. By the end of May, the program had 37,189 participants, 66,269 logins and 210 local business partners.

Recyclebank’s program differs slightly from that of Recycling Perks. While residents can earn points for recycling, points can also be earned by interacting with online Recyclebank content, which educates people on recycling. Additionally, residents can share points with local charities and schools, or they can devote them towards planting trees.

The ability for residents to earn points just by educating themselves with content means anyone with a Phoenix IP address can participate in the program, even if they don’t use Phoenix’s solid waste services, Barrett says.

The contract’s benefits extend beyond just getting more residents to recycle, Barrett says. The company has actively promoted recycling education at community events throughout the city. Barrett also cites the company’s reward partnerships with local businesses as helping the economy.

“Participation of local businesses in this incentive program not only garners more interest in the rewards program and supports our waste diversion goals,” she says. “It also plays a really important role in connecting our residents to locally owned businesses and encourages them to support our local economy, which is something we care deeply about.” 

Programs like Recycling Perks and Recyclebank’s haven’t worked for all municipalities. 

A city news release shows that Atlanta began using Recycling Perks’ services in 2015, but an email from Will Anderson, communications manager of the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience, confirmed that the city had decided to abandon the service. “It’s as simple as we weren’t seeing the effects that we were hoping for,” Anderson writes.

A 2011 Recyclebank announcement shows that Cincinnati began using its services in October 2010, but a city news release shows the city ended the contract in 2013.  “Although the Recyclebank program worked for some residents, overall Recyclebank participation rates were disappointing,” the release notes. In both instances, Atlanta and Cincinnati affirmed that they would be revamping their recycling plans to better suit their needs and abilities. 

Responding to cities ending contracts with his company, Flaim notes that a major issue with changing behaviors is that it’s not an immediate action.

“To move a resident from not recycling an aluminum can to recycling an aluminum can, it takes time,” he says. “And admittedly, sometimes municipalities don’t necessarily have the benefit of a very, very long-term view on behavior change and behavioral science.”
 

The big picture: Federal stances won’t trump city initiatives

Flaim’s point of behavioral change taking time is one that Martin says applies to sustainability programs as a whole — that they should be viewed as paths towards long-term goals and not short-term fixes.

“These are systems-level changes that are taking place right now, and we didn’t get to the place we’re at right now in five years,” he says. “These are gradual processes that allow citizens to make a sustainable choice more easily. I think it’s absolutely crucial that we take a long-term approach to sustainability.”

Time however, might have recently taken on some additional weight across the country.

On June 1, President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the country from the Paris Agreement (or Paris Accord). The agreement, put forth by the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in 2015 and signed by 195 counties, lays out guidelines for countries to abide by in curbing greenhouse gas emissions as part of a global effort to combat climate change. 

The generation of electricity, emissions of petroleum-powered vehicles and the accumulation of waste —  which these incentive programs try to mitigate — can generate greenhouse gases, according to the EPA. 

On the same day after the announcement however, 68 mayors across the country committed to adopting and upholding the goals from the Paris Agreement, in a signed open letter posted on the online content platform Medium. By June 9, the list of signatory mayors jumped to 279.

“We will intensify efforts to meet each of our cities’ current climate goals, push for new action to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, and work together to create a 21st century clean energy economy,” the mayors write.

Having spoken to American City & County just an hour before the scheduled announcement, Martin’s beliefs on the move’s effect on cities parallel the mayors’ words. While Trump’s action won’t necessarily make cities’ sustainability ambitions any easier to achieve, it likely won’t necessarily eradicate those ambitions.

“We would prefer to have a willing federal partner through this process,” Martin says. 

“But it certainly isn’t going to cause any cities to withdraw their sustainability objectives.”


View an interactive map and chart of the greenest cities in the U.S. by clicking here.

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