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It’s not just incentives that increase recycling

Carrot versus stick. The maybe slightly over used, but an accurate metaphor for so much debate in our industry. Is it better to build a system that promotes punitive action at its heart to change people’s behaviour, or motivate them by rewarding them, building a relationship over time that makes recycling action habitual? We believe we have an affordable solution that is bringing both improved recycling performance, and builds communities that are interested in recycling and wider green actions.

With over 4m members worldwide, operating in every US state and a growing operation in the UK, we’ve a great deal of experience about using the carrot to change people’s behaviour. The Recyclebank programme isn’t just using incentives though; it uses deeper techniques and methods to motivate communities to recycle more.

We’re all interested in increasing the amount of recycling collected, and reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill. But there’s a challenge. Landfills are being filled with people’s waste and those people belong to communities. If we can change community level recycling and waste habits then we can start to reverse the trend.

It sounds simple, but the difficulty is that there are a lot of us, and we’re growing. So this is not just a problem that can be solved by getting one particular group of people to make a difference. We have to tackle this universally and we all need to participate if we are truly going to tackle the issue. One person’s rubbish may have a minor impact, multiply this by millions and it becomes a major issue.

Therein lies one of our problems – people’s lives are busy and, sad as it is to say, the vast majority of people aren’t driven by just ‘being green’. On an individual level it’s difficult to see the impact that you’re making, and if you can’t see what impact other people are making, then why bother yourself?

We believe we have a recipe that tackles these challenges, which is bringing positive results. As individuals, we are all driven differently, but we respond to what motivates us. We identify those motivators and respond accordingly. Some people need education and help to understand what they’re doing, to know what needs to be done and what impact they’re making. Information is vital to keeping people motivated and the ability to share good best practice allows others to follow.

The programme aims initially for small changes and to move community impact on step by step. Those little steps multiplied across the community create a much bigger combined impact. Once momentum is created, it’s important to maintain traction, and that’s where other motivating techniques start to work. Our members benefit from economic currency (reward points), gamification drivers (social media status, leader boards, badges) and personal analytics (understanding their relevancy through personal impact metrics).

Once you’ve got communities acting together it’s then about sharing best practice. Digital engagement has the capacity to aggregate millions and instantly gain attention across multiple channels. This scale online then drives offline actions, such as kerbside recycling.

So the big question is does this work?

Last November, Defra data showed that recycling rates in the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead and Halton Borough Council, where Recyclebank initially launched in the UK, added 4.3 and 7.3 percentage points respectively.  The national average was 1.5 percentage points. Recycling in these boroughs is growing at three to four times the national average and the consistent factor was that residents were being rewarded and motivated to recycle.

More recently, Recyclebank has launched in Wokingham Borough Council in partnership with Veolia Environmental Services. The launch saw a lighter and more affordable version and after just three months nearly 20,000 residents have joined the programme. According to Wokingham, recycling performance has increased 32% (Q1 2012/13 vs Q1 2011/12) and residual waste is down 21% over the same time period. Residents in the borough have already earned over 5.5m Recyclebank points. The borough suggests it is on track to save over £1m this year.

There’s been much debate by psychologists about how long it takes to change a habit. If you Google this now you’ll probably find estimates that range from 21 days to upwards of 100. With over 4m engaged and satisfied members, we’d argue that changing a habit is one thing, maintaining that habit is another – the carrot has proved an effective way to do this and has really delivered some significant results at the same time.

Rob Crumbie, marketing director, Recyclebank

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