Have you ever wondered whether or not all this recycling is doing any good? We hear plenty of bad news—overflowing landfills, rising energy consumption, islands of garbage floating in the ocean—but until recently it has been hard to figure out just how much impact our own individual behavior was having. Boston-area company Greenbean Recycle aims to change that by installing high-tech “reverse vending machines” at university campuses and eventually other public areas around the city. Aimed at the Facebook and Twitter crowd, these machines provide recyclers with instantaneous feedback on how much they are recycling and on how much energy they have saved in the process. Users simply sign in and deposit their bottles; their recycling totals are tracked online. According to the company’s website, the company’s machines at MIT and Tufts had recycled 30,058 containers and saved 5313 kilowatt hours of energy as of February 9, 2012. Bottle deposit money can be deposited to a Paypal account, added to a student spending card, or donated to a charity of the user’s choice.
The instant feedback provided by this system gives an incentive to keep recycling in much the same way that the desire to get a high score in Tetris keeps players coming back. This is an example of the phenomenon of gamification, or adding video game-like incentives to encourage people to participate in socially desirable activities. Greenbean offers recycling competitions (the America Recycles for Thanksgiving challenge took 2636 containers out of the waste stream), and CEO Shanker Sahai envisions eventually giving away prizes provided by sponsors, such as Red Sox tickets, to encourage even more recycling.
Anyone who has had (or known someone who has had) a video game obsession knows how easy it is to get hooked on simple, repetitive tasks for which rewards are given. Gamification provides a wealth of opportunities to encourage people to participate in beneficial activities by reframing them as competitive games rather than chores. In the future it would be interesting to see more experimentation in this area, such as testing whether or not intermittent rewards (e.g. a small chance to win a random prize each time a bottle is inserted into the machine), would increase use.
We applaud Greenbean for its innovative program, and hope to see more of its machines around the city in the near future.