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Paying residents to recycle? Incentive program would give coupons

If helping the environment isn't a good enough argument to get people to recycle, maybe a few bucks will do the trick.

In Wilmington, Del., and about 20 other communities, residents earn rewards for recycling. A private company offers them coupons for discounts at hundreds of businesses, including Starbucks, Staples, Dunkin' Donuts and IKEA.

The more trash people recycle, the more rewards they earn.

Now, Buffalo officials, discouraged by the poor recycling record in the city, are talking with that company about bringing the program here.

"I love the idea," Mayor Byron W. Brown said.

How would a city know how much a household is recycling?

That's where technology comes in. Computer chips are placed in recycling totes. And scanners on specially equipped collection trucks read a bar code on the totes. A computer then weighs recyclables, logs the data and credits the resident's account with money that can be redeemed for discount coupons via the Internet or telephone.

If people recycle everything that can be recycled, they would likely rack up about $400 in rewards each year, according to officials at RecycleBank, the Pennsylvania company that is promoting the incentive-based concept.

When people visit the Internet to find out their rewards tally, they also learn how many gallons of oil and how many trees they have saved through recycling.

A block club leader in Buffalo's Bailey-Kensington section who has worked on previous efforts to get more people to recycle thinks the rewards idea has potential.

"I think a lot more people would [recycle] if they knew they would be getting something back," said Margaret Frainier of the Elmer-Regal Block Club.

Buffalo isn't the only local community that is interested in RecycleBank's plan. Orchard Park Supervisor Mary Travers Murphy said company officials recently made a presentation. "I was all ears. It sounds extremely intriguing," she said.

About 70 percent of all homes in Orchard Park already recycle, she said.

But she thinks the number could increase, noting that the new program would expand the kind of refuse people could recycle and would let them toss it all in one tote. At first glance, she said, it sounds like a win-win.

She stressed, though, that she and others still must run the numbers and make sure that any start-up costs and other expenses represent a good deal for taxpayers.

The first pilot program was launched in 2005 in a few Philadelphia neighborhoods. Since then, RecycleBank has ramped up a citywide program in Wilmington and has operations in New Jersey and about 15 Pennsylvania communities. The program will also make its debut in Ontario County this year.

>Fines or rewards?

RecycleBank Chief Executive Officer Ron Gonen said the company is currently in negotiations with Toronto and Charlotte, N.C. By early fall, he predicted, the company will double its current participation to about 100,000 homes involving a few hundred thousand dwellers.

"You have to motivate people to do the right thing," Gonen said. "Either you can fine them or reward them. I think the latter is the American way."

Buffalo has done neither. While it has the power to impose fines on residents who do not recycle, the city has never flexed its muscle in the regard. Instead, it has struggled to convince people over the years that recycling will save scarce tax dollars, conserve landfill space and help the environment.

Those arguments apparently have fallen on deaf ears. Even city officials acknowledge that Buffalo's recycling rate is disgraceful. Less than 7 percent of waste in the city is being recycled, which is down from a high of 14 percent in the mid-1990s.

Federal studies show that 32 percent of municipal waste is being recycled. A 20 percent recycling rate is not uncommon in other cities, according to city recycling experts.

In Wilmington, the recycling rate has skyrocketed from the low single digits to more than 35 percent since the incentive program was introduced, Gonen said, adding, "We're basically seeing the same [results] in every community we're serving."

The program has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from residents since it was launched citywide in March, said John Rago, director of policy development and communications for Wilmington's mayor.

And it's not just the incentives that have made it popular. People like the convenience of being able to toss all their recyclables in one tote, as opposed to having to separate different types of waste, Rago said. He predicted that Wilmington will soon recycle at least half of all its waste.

>Optimistic outlook

But the reviews from Philadelphia's recycling coordinator were more tempered. Joan Hicken said the 2-year-old pilot program involving 2,400 homes is continuing and that recycling rates have increased. A survey indicated that only 10 percent of participants mentioned the incentives when asked what they liked about the program, Hicken said. Most said the key selling point was that they could throw all recyclables in one container without separating them.

The costs of implementing the program throughout Philadelphia would cost millions more than what the city would save, Hicken added. These expenses include the time it would take crews to weigh the totes, she said.

Comprehensive and consistent recycling outreach efforts are more effective tools than giving people discount coupons to their favorite stores, in Hicken's eyes.

If Buffalo recycled only 20 percent of its waste, some experts predict, it could save at least $400,000. But what if Buffalo signs a deal with RecycleBank and the city doesn't see any decrease in its landfill costs?

"If we don't save you those dollars, you don't pay us," replied Gonen, saying the company ramps up pilot projects that provide virtually no financial risk for municipalities.

Gonen said he has little doubt that the incentive program will result in at least five times more waste being recycled in Buffalo.
The blue boxes that Buffalo uses for recycling would have to be replaced with wheeled totes, similar to those that people use for their regular trash.

Frainier, a longtime block club member, thinks a long-term incentive program would produce results. "A lot of people don't recycle," she said, "because they say, 'I pay garbage fee, so why should I make the effort?' This would give them an incentive."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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