Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Advent of Reverse Vending Machines

Initiatives to increase recycling rates through logistical partnerships and innovative marketing are cropping up everywhere, but perhaps none of the proposals have the potential or incentives to capture more of the recyclable waste stream than Reverse Vending Machines (RVMs). These somewhat-portable machines look like your average pop machine, but instead of putting money in to receive that dose of high fructose, you put your empty soda bottle or aluminum can in and receive money, or at least redeemable gift cards, coupons or online points. Invented in the mid-eighties, (the nineteen-eighties), RVMs have come a long way, and are ready for widespread usage. Check out what they used to look like (and still do in some places) and what they look like now. Some have flashy LED displays capable of advertising, while others have larger container capacities, crushing mechanisms or accept other materials like glass and electronics.

The idea for RVMs stems from research showing that people are more likely to recycle if a) there's fun, interactive rewards involved and 2) there's a close location nearby to toss that on-the-go container. This video provided by shows an experiment involving a RVM wired like an arcade placed in a highly visible public place, and the resulting interest of people passing by. It's amazing what flashy, colorful lights and synthetic sounds can do; just look at Vegas. These reverse vending machines also address the issue of contamination by scanning each package that they receive, sorting the material into its proper pile, making it easier for pick-up to a transfer station or recycling center. While some of these machines are privately-contracted in bottle bill states, they will have more of an impact in deposit-less states (IMO) by providing access and a reason for recycling.

The new generation of RVMs is quite impressive. Norway-based TOMRA is a vendor of at least five different types of RVMs, which have appeared in stadiums and college campuses across the U.S. The start-up company ecoATM, Inc. has developed a machine that accepts cell phones, and has plans to accept other electronics such as laptops and mp3 players, providing a good e-waste solution. They currently only operate RVMs at the Nebraska Furniture Mart in Omaha and Kansas City, and about seven different Westfield malls in southern California. Pepsico and Waste Management have teamed up with GreenOps to manufacture what they call The Dream Machine in hopes of reaching a recovery goal of 400 million containers annually. This RVM accepts PET bottles and aluminum cans and there are plans for several thousand of them to be distributed across the country. Currently, there are only 150 in Rite Aids across North Cackalacky (random right?) as a trial program. You can redeem rewards with an account at or sometimes the host venue, I guess in this case, Rite Aid.

The potential locations for RVMs are endless. College campuses could put them in high-density locations like food courts, and the students could redeem containers for points/dollars (I believe they were called TerpBucks at UMD) on their university cards to buy that overpriced, late-night, C-store snack. Stadiums could have RVMs that give you discounts on that even-more-overpriced-than-campus-C-store food and drink. Hospitals produce tons of plastic and aluminum from patients' meal trays every day and would greatly decrease their waste disposal costs with RVMs. State and national parks could have them at their campgrounds keeping containers off trails. Festivals and big, public celebrations could have them to collect the tons of container waste that they produce. Boardwalks and beaches would benefit immensely by a RVM collecting empties from all raging going on; just imagine one in walking distance from that over-crowded rental you stayed in at Beach Week. Putting one side-by-side wherever there's a real vending machine would go a long way as well.

Hopefully, we will start seeing reverse vending machines and other fun, collection technologies become ingrained in our culture. I have yet to see one in action in my own daily experience, possibly showing that they still have a long way to go, but perhaps I don't get out enough. I'd love hearing from people who have used one.

What does all this mean for municipal recycling programs? If enough aluminum and glass, which are high-value materials, are diverted from normal recycling centers, it's possible the economic feasibility of operations would suffer, since newspaper consumption is rapidly declining and plastic pays shit. However, a lot of these machines need a place to transport and recycle their containers, and the closest place would be the local recycling center. The verdict is still out on the impact and future RVMs will have, but I suspect they won't affect municipal recycling operations adversely, and might even benefit them by increasing material coming in. Without a doubt though, reverse vending machines will increase recycling and waste diversion rates, thereby benefitting our Earth.

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