Recyclebank and the Greening of the Mass Market

If a green ethic ever breaks out among the masses, there's a good chance we'll have Recyclebank to thank. The seven-year-old company, backed by some A-list venture capital firms, is hellbent on nudging millions of people along a greener path, and making a bundle along the way. It just may pull it off.

In a nutshell, Recyclebank provides incentives to households that recycle and take other green measures, rewarding them with points that can be redeemed for discounts and coupons from national and local brands and retailers. Points also can be donated to support environmental education in schools. It's the "carrot" end of the carrot-and-stick motivation metaphor. The challenge, of course, is to get enough people doing enough things that actually moves the needle of environmental progress.

Nudging the masses is no small task. As I've written extensively over the years, Americans have been highly resistant to change -- at least when it comes to habits that reduce their environmental footprint. Recycling has caught on to the extent that many people recycling at least something, though hardly all they could. Energy conservation is being committed by growing numbers of households seeking to save money on their energy bills. But neither has reached a tipping point, even after all these years of nudging -- not to mention pushing, pulling, prodding, and guilt-tripping.

Recyclebank CEO Jonathan Hsu thinks that's a solvable problem. The solution: rewards, games, and accessible information.

We’ll get to the rewards and games in a minute. A key step toward providing accessible information came last week, when Recyclebank purchased GreenYour, a website created a few years ago by my colleagues at GreenOrder. (I had a teensy financial stake in GreenYour; suffice to say, I’m keeping my day job.) GreenYour, which provides information about things people can incorporate into their everyday lives, syncs well with Recyclebank’s modus operendi: not just to enlighten the masses, but to entertain them.

And that’s where the games come in.

"Content for content’s sake is interesting, but it’s only effective if people accept it, digest it, and internalize it," Hsu told me last week from his office in Manhattan. "One of the great tools and catalysts for behavioral change is games. It can take many different forms. If you can present information and learning in a fun and accessible way, it is more likely to resonate and drive the requisite downstream behavioral change you want to engender."

Online games are something many companies are starting to wake up to, building on the hockey-stick growth of FarmVille, Happy Aquarium, Words With Friends, and other recent phenomena. It turns out that large numbers of players of such games are women age 25-44, heads of families, which maps nicely to Recyclebank’s membership base, says Hsu. "One of the great interesting phenomenon that’s going on in our world is this concept of gamification -- using game elements to drive everyday behavior," he says. "Our audience likes digesting content in game format, because there’s a sense of achievement and fun as they’re going through the process."