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On-Site Recycling Facilities Can Provide a Win-Win-Win

As California's bottle-recycling bill shows, making recycling convenient and easy provides boons to retailers, states and shoppers, while helping to increase overall recycling rates at the same time.

Each year, Americans use, and dispose of, almost 200 billion glass, plastic and aluminum beverage containers. And even though ever-larger number of Americans have access to recycling facilities, there is still a long way to go to decrease the amount of beverage containers that go to landfill.

Since the late 1980s, California has been one of the leading states with recycling programs -- in particular, its system that enables consumers to get cash for their empty bottles. Even so, California recycles barely two-thirds of its containers: 16 billion are recycled out of the 22 billion used in that state every year.

Over the course of the past decade, the state of California and its retailers have taken steps to provide consumers with improved recycling facilities. Some of the results show that on-site recycling centers at retail grocers' locations can be a win-win-win: recycling rates can increase, shoppers feel good about supporting a store that helps them recycle, and retailers can increase both traffic and revenues through shoppers bringing their recycling vouchers into stores for redemption.

California’s bottle bill, AB2020, was passed in 1987, and the state has raised the deposit amounts several times since then, to the present amount of 5 cents for less than 24 ounce bottles, and 10 cents for greater than 24 ounces. The deposit is referred to as California Redemption Value (CRV), and by law is required to be clearly displayed on the label of all eligible beverage containers, alerting the public that the container has a refund value.

As California has raised its deposit amounts over the last decade, demand for clean, conveniently located, user-friendly recycling centers has surged. Of the 16 billion containers recycled in California, 31 percent are collected in convenience zones near where customers buy beverages, and 14 percent through curbside. But to date, only 1,300 of the state's 3,000 potential locations for recycling centers are currently in use, whether due to lack of space on the grocer’s parking lot, city opposition, or disinterest by the store or property owner.

When retailers began to comply with the bottle bill requirements in earnest in 1987, they regularly sought ways to collect recycling without supplying the labor. But because the recycling centers themselves were often unsightly, it has been an uphill battle to spread collection sites.

But new technologies, including recycling kiosks that bring do-it-yourself convenience to container recycling, are showing how these challenges can be overcome. The kiosks contain automated recycling technology called reverse vending machines (RVMs). By issuing vouchers in exchange for empty beverage containers, the machines bring shoppers into stores to redeem them for cash. Having the cash in hand also tends to lead to an increase in in-store sales: Shoppers who return empties at grocery stores spend up to 52 percent more per visit.
A TOMRA recycling kiosk. Photo courtesy of the author.

Some of these RVMs offer store coupons as well as redemption vouchers, providing an added incentive for consumers to shop in the nearby grocery store.

An added benefit of these recycling kiosks is that it helps retailers green their public image in the communities they serve. Shoppers associate the recycling kiosks with the retailer, providing the store with a positive public profile and increasing its appeal to environmentally conscious customers. Retailers are starting to grasp the public relations value of being able to say they have helped to divert X number of containers from landfills. Cities, too, appreciate the value of consumer-friendly recycling centers, in part because the bottles collected at recycling kiosks can be counted toward the city’s recycling and waste diversion totals.

With more than 440 recycling kiosks in California, TOMRA has found more than anecdotal evidence of the benefits of these kiosks. The company is currently recycling 1.5 billion containers, or 10 percent of the state’s total, and with support from state and local officials as well as retailers, it can help boost those recycling levels even further.

Adrian White is VP of Business Development at TOMRA Pacific Inc, a division of Tomra North America.

Supermarket photo CC-licensed by Flickr user wili_hybrid.

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