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INSIGHT: Recycling incentive schemes

Fierce competition is developing to provide recycling incentive schemes to councils, with reward giant Nectar, sustainability partnership Local Green Points and US firm RecycleBank already jostling for position in what could soon be a very lucrative market.

With the government opposed to pay-as-you-throw schemes that penalise bad recycling practice, attention is turning to methods of incentivising good waste behaviour.

Birmingham City Council is to run a pilot scheme where residents in Bournville and Erdington receive 25 Nectar points every time they pit out their paper recycling boxes. The company, whose points can be redeemed at Sainsbury’s, Argos and Homebase, wants to recruit other councils for similar projects.

But it will face tough competition. Local Green Points is launching a pilot reward scheme to 2,000 flats in the London borough of Bexley. A partnership between Green Rewards, Enviro Comms and the Resource Waste Advisory Group will reward residents for reductions in their level of residual waste. Six other schemes are said to be in the pipeline.

Meanwhile, the provider of the UK’s first recycling incentive scheme, RecycleBank, is tendering to extend a weight-based programme in the royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead to include organic waste from April 2012.

So what are the pros and cons of the different systems?

Windsor and Maidenhead’s head of public protection Terry Gould said the weight-based scheme was the most advanced model available.

“It is very sophisticated, using chips in the bin to measure weight,” he said. “People did not accept chips for penalties but we removed the suspicion and Big Brother fears. It has worked out financially with significant savings for the council taxpayer.”

However, critics point out that rewarding by weight fails to sufficiently credit people who reduce the waste they produce in the first place.

Local Green Points will measure the savings residents in the Bexley pilot make on their landfill bill compared to a year earlier. A proportion of this will be shared among residents in the form of points that can be redeemed or donated to one of three community projects.

Director Stephen Bates says the community element is a critical motivating factor: “We want to reduce waste to landfill; which of the three Rs are used is secondary. An elderly lady living on her own will never generate as much waste to recycle as a large family.”

A drawback of measuring residual waste is that it will become progressively harder for residents to beat their previous totals. Bates said this would be countered by rising landfill disposal costs keeping savings high.

Nectar believes its Birmingham scheme is the simplest and most intuitive. Client development director Will Shuckburgh said many people were already familiar with Nectar points – 18 million people collect them.

One criticism of Nectar’s participation-based approach is that it takes no account of recyclables thrown in the bin rather than left out for collection.

Shuckburgh countered: “We could make it more complicated but we think this is the most effective way of getting results. It is acting as a reminder to get people thinking about recycling.”

With the huge potential for recycling incentive schemes across the UK, the debate over methods – and the competition to provide them – is unlikely to go away soon.

Is it right to reward recycling?

AEA principal consultant Gareth Morton:

“Incentives can be a good thing, but it’s a short fix to get a scheme going or a short boost in performance. The trouble is what happens when you stop running them, as they tend to have very short lifespans in people’s minds.”

Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee chair Joy Blizzard:

“The jury is still out on incentive schemes. The Nectar scheme is an interesting approach, and I look forward to seeing whether it is sustainable in the long-term. Can local authorities continue to afford this kind of approach in these straightened times? What is the exit strategy?”

Local Green Points director Stephen Bates:

“If Great Britain had a 70% recycling rate then we would not need communications and incentives. Recycling is optional and until legislation changes we need to encourage people to do it. It is not the answer but it is part of the process.”

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