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."
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."