MACHINES WHICH reward people for recycling are an expensive punt but a trial at Glasgow Caledonian University could show whether they pay off.
Students drink a lot of coffee. At Glasgow Caledonian University, the 17,000 students get through about 6,000 cups every day – 40% of them in disposable cups. About 1,500 plastic bottles and 500 aluminium cans also pile up in bins around campus and in the five catering outlets. Frank McCabe, the on-site catering manager at Encore, had enough of seeing the waste mountains build. “That’s when we decided to have a look into how we could collect it all and send it to be recycled or reused,” he says.
Reverse vending (RV) had been on his radar for some time and he was considering spending a few thousand on machines which would improve both Encore’s green credentials and the university’s – something that more and more on-site caterers are keen to do. Then a government trial scheme was announced and he struck gold with £90,000 from Zero Waste Scotland for six RV machines.
The refectory and Café Roots each have a set of three machines – a Flex Interactive to collect crushed cans, another Flex Interactive to collect and crush PET soft drinks bottles and an EcoVend to collect paper coffee cups (“we had to move to a new cup that is fully compostable”). The machines flatten and sort products into a designated bin, saving up to 15 times the volume compared with a non-compacting unit. For each deposit students receive 5p towards their next purchase. “There’s also a golden ticket that gives the winner free lunches for a week,” says McCabe.
The economics also need to stack up for the caterer or site owner. These are expensive units and the incentives can be even more costly, says Adam Read, a waste expert at consultants Ricardo-AEA. “Even offering a voucher for 2p per bottle is more than
the bottle is worth,” he explains. “However, you can get a very clean output that can go straight to a reprocessor. It depends on the value of the packaging you are collecting.”
It also depends on how much you can collect. The concept of rewarding people for recycling has also been around for some time. Some scientists warn that campaigns to promote eco-friendly behaviour increasingly emphasise self-interest – and this can be dangerous. “There can be knock-on effects in terms of societal norms with the public perhaps expecting money for their pro- environmental actions,” explains Professor Greg Maio from Cardiff University’s school of psychology.
Tesco had to reassess the way it rewards customers using its RV machines after reports that people were cutting plastic bottles into tiny scraps to pass them off as more items.
To achieve a marked shift in behaviour may take time and more than just a 5p voucher, but that’s not to say that making recycling on the go easier won’t help. Neil Whittall, the commercial director at Huhtamaki, believes RV has “a part to play for the moment” but can see bigger shifts being required to make significant inroads into recycling waste on the go.
“If the act of recycling became easier through better collection and sorting of general waste then reverse vending might even not have been needed. However, I think we are a long way from these ideals. We have not yet as a society worked hard enough on extracting the value out of waste, but I do believe this is an area we will see improve.”