How To Revolutionize Recycling: Cashfree Refunds From Smart Reverse Vending Machines

Greenbean Recycle takes the childhood joy of bringing your cans and bottle to the redemption center and makes it a lot easier to get your money (and compete against your friends).

What if every bottle or can you recycled not only gave you an instant refund deposited into the account of your choosing, but also immediately informed you of the positive impact its recycling had on the environment?

That’s the idea behind Greenbean Recycle, the brainchild of Zambia-born civil engineer Shanker Sahai. His innovative technological approach to recycling cans, bottles, and other is predicated on the belief that by showing people the impact of their actions in real time (and by giving them direct deposits), he can inspire big shifts in behavior.

As a child growing up in Botswana with a father who built waste water treatment plants, Sahai always had an environmental bug. When he moved to the states, he was fascinated by so-called "reverse vending machines," the recycling devices outside grocery stores and strip malls that issue cash-redeemable receipts at the registers indoors. "I found them interesting and I liked the crushing sound they made."

Photo by Dan Ducas of the The Vianetwork.

But he also saw shortcomings in the system. Most reverse vending machine systems are situated outside strip malls, which is fine for folks with a bag full of bottles, but isn’t necessarily convenient for person who just drank a single Coke. Furthermore, in certain states, some items of equal value aren’t classified the same way, meaning someone who consumes a sports drink (or other plastic bottles known as "non-deposit" items) won’t get the same refund as someone who drinks a soda, even if they have the same material value.

So Sahai designed a solution and implemented it at MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Northeastern, and Brandeis University, with machines placed at convenient locations--places you might pass by with a single bottle in hand. Thanks to the data collection component, the students can compete against each other to see which group has the most impact. That’s an idea Sahai thinks can translate into communities all across the country.

"When users see their names on a leader board they are more engaged to come and continue recycling," says Sahai. "Recycling is a boring chore and sometimes you don’t know how your effort makes a difference or even if it is recycled and re-used [especially in cities with quotas], so by showing a user that even one bottle or can makes a difference in real time the user is encouraged to keep recycling."

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  • Anthony Richard Aburime

    I have 10 reverse vending machines for sale please contact me at aburimea@gmail.com

  • Anthony Richard Aburime

    I have 10 reverse vending machines for sale please contact me at aburimea@gmail.com

  • Roger Lee Gonzalez

    Hey I'm looking into starting a small recycling business in Harrisburg pa
    looking into to buying a reverse vending machine any idea on how I can go about buying one or a few?

  • Miguel Aballe

    Good to hear that there is the possibility to implement a non-discriminatory system which would set up the same playing rules for all packaging; this would obviously encounter much less opposition that systems currently in operation aimed at only the most valuable cleanest and already most recycled packages.

  • Miguel Aballe

    If the initative is called green bean recycle, can you recycle a green bean can? 
    Why beverage containers only? 
    The material value of a food can is the same as that of a drinks can of the same metal. 
    The energy saving is the same. 
    The reduction in carbon footprint the same. 
    What about a liquor bottle? It has tiwice as much glass as a beer bottle

  • Shanker

    Hello Miguel, thanks for your comment. Yes the Reverse Vending Machine can take anything that is shaped like a bottle or can, so our goal is to collect soup cans, pet food cans, wine bottles and liquor bottles. The current machine that has the Greenbean software is limited to the size and shape of bottle or can it can take, since we can plug the Greenbean Software into any Reverse Vending Machine we are working to integrate it into larger machines that can accept different sizes of bottles and cans.