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Rewarding waste minimisation

With the new Government came a new attitude towards waste and recycling, with the promotion of the carrot rather than the stick as it sought to distance itself from its Labour predecessor. Recycling incentive schemes such as RecycleBank have been hailed as a triumph over Labour’s bin taxes. But criticism of RecycleBank has, at times, been as strong as the praise it has earned.

Some argue that by rewarding householders with points for increasing the amount they recycle, which are then converted into vouchers to spend with participating retailers, the wrong messages were being sent out about resource efficiency. In fact, would these incentives lead to more waste being produced if householders decided to consume more in order to recycle more and so earn more points? If that was the case, then the top of the waste hierarchy - waste reduction - was being ignored.

“Waste minimisation is a tough topic here and in the [US], where consumption is seen almost as a right,” says RecycleBank UK managing director Sue Igoe. “Changing a consumer’s behaviour is almost impossible. Instead, the individual has to buy-in to a system [and find out the benefits for themselves].

“For a body like the Government to tell the consumer to reduce waste, it could feel like it is restricting consumers and their rights. But we can get retailers to reduce the amount of packaging on products and so the consumer automatically produces less waste. It is important, however, that we get consumers to think about it.”

And so RecycleBank has begun work on a new incentive scheme which encourages waste minimisation across households in a similar way to the existing recycling reward scheme.

Philadelphia was the first city to use RecycleBank in 2005 and, five years later, it has become the first city to trial the scheme’s waste minimisation bonus system called the Trash Reduction Bonus.

Igoe says: “We went into Philadelphia, a city which is a similar size to Birmingham with a similarly diverse community. When we first came in to introduce RecycleBank, recycling rates were really low - less than 10%. The city had tried to increase recycling and had converted to a multi-material recycling stream. But it takes a lot of money to put new systems in place and the city of Philadelphia authority does not have the same drivers to divert waste away from landfill as you do in the UK.

“Landfill is expensive, though, so in 2009 the local authority had to make cuts to services. We thought that it was important to divert waste away from landfill to save costs, which not only meant more recycling was needed but we needed to also reduce the waste that was produced.”

A trial of the Trash Reduction Bonus system began in March 2010 and ended in October. Although official statistics and results illustrating the impact of the system are not yet available, Igoe says the local authority and householders are happy with the system and they are saving money.

It works by focusing on reducing the residual waste that householders cannot recycle. In Philadelphia’s case, RecycleBank calculated a baseline residual waste amount by taking an average calculation of residual waste produced in the area over the previous three to four years, taking out any anomalies. Unlike the recycling reward system, the points awarded are based on the community’s total residual waste produced. Any points earned through a reduction in this tonnage are then added to each individual household’s account.

“We are big believers that behavioural change is based on community-thinking. But it is also important to have a ‘what’s in it for me’ level because, although people want to give back to their community, they also want to see their individual efforts rewarded,” Igoe explains.

For Green Rewards, another incentive scheme that works here in the UK, in partnership with EnviroComms and the Resource Waste Advisory Group, community working is the key psychology behind its rewards system. It believes that residual waste is core to calculating not only waste reduction but increases in recycling, and it therefore incentivises both waste minimisation and recycling.

“Waste minimisation is a tough topic, where consumption is seen almost as a right”

EnviroComms director of communications Steven Bates says: “We measure the amount of waste that goes to landfill and the amount of waste fly-tipped in the area because it goes hand-in-hand with the amount of waste recycled. Our system will spot a trend that signals if the residual waste is being dumped. So when we report back to householders each fortnight, we tell them how much the residual waste has been cut by across the community and reward them with points alongside those earned through recycling.”

The system uses Wastedataflow information to find out how much material is going to landfill.

As with all recycling schemes, Bates believes there is not an off-the-peg system that can be used with incentive schemes. One council that it is currently in talks with already has a high recycling rate, so it will only be a matter of time until Green Rewards begins stimulating demand to reduce residual waste. In another area, the recycling rate is below 20%, which will allow it more scope to pull recycling rates up before looking at waste reduction.

“It depends what priorities the local authority has,” says Bates. “Speaking to them on a weekly basis, we’ve found that everyone talks about waste minimisation and prevention. The difficulty they have is trying to measure reduction in residual waste. How do you measure something that isn’t there? They have been frustrated that there hasn’t been a robust model they can use to tap into this side of waste management. So we’re hoping that with our scheme we are able to provide that service.

“We believe in creating a higher focus on messaging and communicating with the community. If you concentrate on the community on a micro level, you are going to get better results.”

Igoe agrees that a flexible approach to solving local authorities’ needs is important. “In the UK when people think about RecycleBank, they think about chips in bins and incentivising recycling but local authorities should really utilise us. We can create a reward scheme for recycling boxes as well as bins. For example, we just launched a scheme in Windsor for households that cannot use bins. We can also create a system for recycling [in flats] where the points earned are on the amount the community recycles rather than the individual.”

Currently, Green Rewards is getting ready to implement its scheme at its first local authority, although it already has an established incentive scheme in the corporate world. Bates agrees with Igoe’s belief about the psychology behind waste minimisation.

He says: “If you talk to a resident and tell them to reduce the waste they produce, it will have little, if any, effect. They want to consume products and have very little control over packaging. We need to raise the profile higher and make people aware of the need to reduce packaging, so this will create a swell of demand that puts pressure on retailers.”

Indeed, this minimisation is something that UK retailers have been very proactive in promoting with help from WRAP and its responsibility deal, the Courtauld Commitment 2. In the US, RecycleBank has partnered with retailers and brands to promote consumer choices, which includes choosing less packaging and encouraging consumers to be more aware of what they are purchasing.

Waste minimisation is just the beginning of a whole new range of incentive schemes that both RecycleBank and Green Rewards are looking to expand into, including points for reducing energy use, using more public transport and even for pledging to give up smoking. It seems that in a world where doing the right thing can be seen as hard work, the carrot rather than the stick approach is here to stay.

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