Earth Institute, Recycling Company Partnership Offers Win-Win Solutions


EEC doctoral student Scott Kaufman, above, is research director of RecycleBank, a new program operating in several Northeast municipalities that rewards recyclers with coupons they can use at businesses such as Starbucks, Home Depot, Whole Foods and Patagonia.

Photo credit: Jill Stoddard

The Earth Engineering Center (EEC) at the Earth Institute at Columbia University has helped to launch a company that uses an innovative rewards system to increase household recycling. The company, RecycleBank, operates under the belief that recycling rates go up when people are paid to recycle.

With this new program, residents use a recycling bin with an embedded computer chip; garbage trucks are retrofitted to include a scale and a scanner; residents put their recyclables in the bin; the truck scans and weighs the bin, recording the amount each household recycles. Residents receive "RecycleBank Dollars" as rewards, coupons they can use to shop at over 150 partnering businesses, including Starbucks, Home Depot, Whole Foods and Patagonia.

EEC doctoral student and RecylceBank research director, Scott Kaufman, meets with stakeholders and helps with the company's strategic planning. He explained, "Our business partners get free advertising because they get their names into people's homes. And they can trace what effect their philanthropic efforts are having on their businesses, because people who use the coupons end up buying other things as well." Households then get coupons to spend at businesses of their choice.

Kaufman's involvement with RecycleBank started in the company's early days. He was lead author of the "2004 State of Garbage in America," an annual survey of waste management practices across all 50 states, run by BioCycle, one of the leading waste industry journals. Columbia Business School alumni, Ron Gonen, who co-founded RecylceBank with Patrick Fitzgerald, saw Kaufman's name and Columbia e-mail address in BioCycle and contacted him, asking him to join the company. Kaufman did shortly afterwards.

Kaufman has been working on optimizing recycling systems as part of his Ph.D. work, so his knowledge helped in starting and running RecycleBank. The company has also benefited from its partnership with the EEC, which under the leadership of Professor Nickolas J.Themelis, Director of the Earth Engineering Center, has been researching municipal solid waste management since the late 1990s.

In return, Kaufman said, RecycleBank's tracking system gathers information on recycling on a household-to-household basis, which helps both his, and the EEC's, work. "There's nothing even remotely close to that level of precision in the industry," he said.

RecycleBank has been operating in Philadelphia for over a year, and is now expanding to the New Jersey and Pennsylvania suburbs; Wilmington, DE; and communities throughout New England and the rest of the Northeast. Talks for further expansion into other municipalities are in also progress.