Until recently, there have been few incentives to recycle. So recycling rates have been more or less steady for years.
That’s changing, largely because of the Internet and its power to efficiently collect, manage and distribute information.
In a column called The Internet of Trash for the News@Cisco website, I write about the ways a company called RecycleBank and a unit of Waste Management called Greenopolis are using data, the Internet and social media to reward people who recycle.
Here’s how the story begins:
“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 annual reports 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.
Big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that have reputational issues tied to litter are working with RecycleBank and Greenopolis to promote recycling. You can read the rest of the story here.
Now if only local governments would find ways to either (1) penalize people who throw away lots of stuff by charging them more or (2) reward people who recycle more, we’d drive up recycling rates further. That would move us just a bit closer to a zero-waste economy where nothing is thrown away and everything is made into somethings else. The idea here isn’t merely to eliminate waste, but to eliminate the concept of waste. Kind of like nature.