Can Rewards Make Americans Live Greener Lives?

Recyclebank wants to reward people for "everyday green actions." But is it really green if the rewards just push members to buy more stuff?

Recyclebank began in 2005 with a simple concept: rewarding people for recycling would lead them to recycle more. Recyclebank awards points for every pound of recycling, and members can redeem those points for coupons and other rewards. Within six months, pilot city Philadelphia increased recycling rates by 16 percent, according to the company, and by last January, the city was keeping one-fifth of its waste out of landfills. Recyclebank is now in 300 communities, and the company just announced a partnership with Waste Management that will put its program in front of 20 million additional customers.

Recyclebank is looking for ways to reward consumers for other green behavior, too. It describes itself as “the company that rewards people for taking everyday green actions” and its CEO, Jonathan Hsu, recently called Recyclebank “the largest consumer-facing engagement platform for all things sustainability.” Members can earn points not just for disposing of their waste properly, but by cutting down their water or energy use or planting a tree.

Everyday green actions won’t stall climate change, but they do have a better chance of making a substantial impact if consumers commit to them en masse. If everyone in the United States changed their incandescents to LED lightbulbs, the country’s total carbon emissions would decrease signficantly. Platforms that create communities, like Recyclebank or Facebook, have the potential to coordinate sweeping behavioral changes on the consumer level.

But Recyclebank isn't living up to that potential yet. I’m exactly the sort of consumer that the company’s hoping to reach with its new initiatives: I’m green-minded, and my community doesn’t participate in the recycling program. Last night, I spent about 30 minutes racking up 120 points on the site, after which I’d run out of point-earning opportunities. (Recycling can earn members up to 450 points each month.)

Most of the “everyday green actions” available to me were in the category the company calls “Learn & Earn.” I took a one-question quiz, sponsored by GE, on hybrid water heaters (5 points); watched an upbeat video and took a quiz about the recycling of Kashi cereal boxes and other paper products (25 points); took a Suave-sponsored quiz about water usage (25 points) and pledged to take a shorter shower (10 points); promised to stop buying bottle water and maybe use a Brita filter instead (25 points); and took a quiz about trees in New York City (30 points).

I could have signed up for a couple of newsletters, but it didn’t seem worth it for the 5 points. Or I could have become a member of thredUP, a kids' clothing exchange, for 20 points, but since I’m baby-less at the moment, that seemed disingenuous. If I had an empty box of Kashi cereal, I could have scored 50 points by typing in a special code. Recyclebank also offers up to 200 points for sending in a used cell phone for reuse and recycling, but the only one I could find was so old that it would only earn me 10 points—probably less, since its screen was hanging by one hinge and busted phones are compensated at a lower rate. The most points-heavy offer I passed on would have earned me 2,500 points, but I would have had to sign up for a “Gconomy” Visa credit card. Bonus: 1.5 points for every dollar I spent on the card! Problem: I’d have to sign up for a new credit card.

A bigger problem, though, was what I could receive in exchange for my points. Although some of the products that Recyclebank rewards promotes are nominally green, like Kashi cereal, mostly they’re just average consumer products. Today, the “popular rewards” are a buy-one-get-one-free coupon at Monster Mini Golf, a $5 coupon for Modell’s Sporting Goods, and a $10 coupon for Bed Bath & Beyond. One day a few weeks back, one of the popular rewards was a coupon to McDonald’s.

Spending time taking sponsored online quizzes and using the resulting points to buy more stuff or eat more Big Macs is not a green action. Even when the points come from recycling, turning around and buying more stuff defeats the purpose to some extent.

But on the other hand, Recyclebank’s concept does have the potential to incentivize everyday green actions. One of the most promising campaigns I came across was run by MillionTreesNYC, a new Recyclebank partner. Teachers in the city can earn points by planting a tree with their students or creating greener schoolyard. Teachers can trade in points for items in the Recyclebank catalog, but the MillionTreesNYC campaign also offered less tangible rewards—like a celebration of trees with the New York Knicks—for the classroom that earned the most points. It’s a great idea to incentivize individual green actions; let's just hope the incentives we respond to aren't just the ones that increase consumption.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user timtak

Julian Meehan

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