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Recycling and the Internet -> Cisco News

January 10, 2011

The Internet of Trash

The Internet – online shopping and digital media – is one reason why Americans are throwing away less trash. Now a pair of startups wants to use digital media to promote recycling.

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January 10, 2011

By Marc Gunther

“Garbage,” says the character played by Andie MacDowell in the 1989 movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. “All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage. We’ve got so much of it, you know? I mean, we have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually.”

Uh, no. Trash may have piled up in the late 1980s—this was the time when a barge called the Mobro carried 3,000 tons of solid waste from New York to Belize and back because there was no place to put it—but Americans lately have been throwing away less stuff, and recycling more.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Internet is a big reason why.  Digital music, for example, means fewer CD cases wind up in the trash. Email and online shopping, meanwhile, reduce the flow of letters and catalogs; mail volumes in the U.S. have fallen from 211 billion pieces in 2005 to 170 million in 2010, according to the annualreports issued by the U.S. Postal Service [PDF, downloads].

The Internet is also enabling innovation around recycling. Two ventures–a startup company called RecycleBank and a new division of Waste Management, America’s largest trash hauler, called Greenopolis – are using digital technology to give people economic incentives to recycle. Both are pay dividends—literally and for the planet, by extracting value from waste that would otherwise be buried in a landfill. “We’re in the business, ultimately, of enabling recycling,” says Paul Ligon, managing director of Greenopolis.

It’s impossible to know exactly why less trash is going to landfills, but there’s no doubt the numbers are dropping. An EPA report called Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2008 (PDF, download of the most recent year available) says that after climbing steadily from 1960 through 2007, the total amount of waste generated by Americans dropped for the first time between 2007 and 2008, from 254.6 to 249.6 million tons. Industry experts and company reports say that less waste went to landfill in 2009 as well. Meanwhile, recycling rates have climbed from 29% to 33% since 2000, EPA says.

“The idea of consumer behavior change is at the heart of our business,”

— Ian Yolles, RecycleBank’s head of marketing

The weak economy is the single most important driver of waste reduction; people buy less and throw away less during recessions. “Green” behavior also comes into play; more shoppers are choosing reusable shopping bags over plastic, and consumer goods companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble are reducing packaging.

The efforts by RecycleBank and Greenopolis to use digital media and economic incentives to drive recycling are generating excitement, too. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble  and Kellogg’s have marketing partnerships with Recycle Bank, while Greenopolis is working closely with PepsiCo and Nestle Waters.

Founded in 2004 by a Columbia University business school student named Ron Gonen, RecycleBank today operates in 300 communities in 26 states where consumers can be rewarded for recycling. “The idea of consumer behavior change is at the heart of our business,” says Ian Yolles, RecycleBank’s head of marketing. Investors in the firm include Coca-Cola and Kleiner Perkins Caufied & Byers, one of Silicon Valley’s best-known venture capital firms.

Homeowners who sign up with RecyleBank receive a special recycling container embedded with a computer chip. Every time the recycling truck comes for a pickup, it records the weight of the bin and transmits it wirelessly to an online account. For every pound they recycle, homeowners earn reward points that can be redeemed at hundreds of merchants, including CVS, Rite-Aid and McDonald’s. People can also earn points through recycling electronics by mail, using a branded Visa card or joining eBay’s Green Team.

Cities, meanwhile, like Recycle Bank because they save money on landfill tipping fees and by selling recycled commodities. RecycleBank gets a share of those savings and, more importantly, gets paid by its marketing partners. The digital media business is so important to RecycleBank that the firm recently hired Jonathan Hsu, who formerly ran a digital marketing firm, as its CEO.

For its part, Greenopolis connects the physical activity of recycling of bottles and cans—mostly through interactive kiosks—to a website where consumers can earn rewards, read blogs and watch videos about the environment. The company also has a Facebook game.

Ligon, the managing director, describes Greenopolis as “a technology company that is designed an open-source platform to connect all the dots in the recycling business.” It can track bottles and cans recycled at its kiosks, scan recyclables collected by schools through a bar code readers and it is developing a scan at home product, too.

Formed just a year ago, Greenopolis has deployed about 400 kiosks – not many—at grocery stories, offices and sports venues. Pepsi, a key partner, has branded its kiosks as Dream Machines, and promised to increase its donations to charitable causes as people recycle more. “Our goal is to have ten times as many kiosks out in the next year,” Ligon says. The company has collected about 6 million bottles and cans so far—a tiny fraction of the billions produced in the U.S. each year—but it’s a start.

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