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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?


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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

Articles

Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

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"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.





Culture
via The Howard Stern Show / YouTube

Former Secretary of State, first lady, and winner of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, sat own for an epic, two-and-a--half hour interview with Howard Stern on his SiriusXM show Wednesday.

She was there to promote "The Book of Gutsy Women," a book about heroic women co-written with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton.

In the far-reaching conversation, Clinton and the self-proclaimed "King of All Media" and, without a doubt, the best interviewer in America discussed everything from Donald Trump's inauguration to her sexuality.

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Politics

The healthcare systems in the United States and the United Kingdom couldn't be more different.

The UK's National Health Service is the largest government-run healthcare system in the world and the US's is largest private sector system.

Almost all essential health services in the UK are free, whereas in America cost can vary wildly based on insurance, co pays and what the hospitals and physicians choose to charge.

A medical bill in the US

One of the largest differences is cost. The average person in the UK spends £2,989 ($3915) per year on healthcare (most of which is collected through taxes), whereas the average American spends around $10,739 a year.

So Americans should obviously be getting better care, right? Well, the average life expectancy in the UK is higher and infant mortality rate is lower than that in the US.

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Plus, in the U.S., only 84% of people are covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Sixteen percent of the population are forced to pay out of pocket.

In the UK, everyone is covered unless they are visiting the country or an undocumented resident.

Prescription drugs can cost Americans an arm and a leg, but in the UK, prescriptions or either free or capped at £8.60 ($11.27).

via Wikimedia Commons

The one drawback to the NHS system is responsiveness. In the UK people tend to wait longer for inessential surgeries, doctor's appointments, and in emergency rooms. Whereas, the US is ranked as the most responsive country in the world.

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The New York Times printed a fair evaluation of the UK's system:

The service is known for its simplicity: It is free at the point of use to anyone who needs it. Paperwork is minimal, and most patients never see a bill. … No one needs to delay medical treatment until he or she can afford it, and virtually everyone is covered. …

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States spent 17.2 percent of its economic output on health care in 2016, compared with 9.7 percent in Britain. Yet Britain has a higher life expectancy at birth and lower infant mortality.

Citizens in each country have an interesting perspective on each other's healthcare systems. UK citizens think it's inhumane for Americans have to pay through the nose when they're sick or injured. While Americans are skeptical of socialist medicine.

A reporter from Politics Joe hit the streets of London and asked everyday people what they think Americans pay for healthcare and they were completely shocked.

Health