Like Winning the Lottery: How Dunkin' Donuts Uses Technology to Promote Recycling

Tomra recycling reverse vending machine image

Students of recycling know that one big issue in reducing waste is human nature. We are ill-informed, inattentive, or just plain lazy when it comes to getting reusable post-consumer materials into the recycling stream. Sure, only true cretins chuck their picnic waste out of the moving car's window in this enlightened age. But recycling systems are far from optimized. Even if a majority of recycle-bin users get it right, the cross-contamination from rubbish or incorrectly sorted recyclables seriously reduces the economic return on recycling, and may even result in a lot of good material ending up as waste.

Various mechanisms continue to be thought up to make an end-run around mankind's deficiencies and get recyclables recycled, including:

  • Deposits on cans and bottles;
  • Specially designed bins, and even smiling recycling containers;
  • Pictograms, multilingual signs and color-coded cues;
  • Psychological tricks like wastestream-specific insert slot shapes.
Now the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence R.I. introduces event attendees to a new concept. It is a winning trick.

The Winning Trick
Literally. One out of every 100 recyclers will be a lucky winner. Tickets to future events or other prizes will create incentives for patrons to use the so-called "reverse vending machines." Two of the Tomra Systems machines will be placed in the food court at the event center. The machines will be sponsored by Coca-cola, and will display have-a-smile messages like "live positively" and "give it back" in Coke colors. Dunkin' Donuts Center spokesman Larry Lepore explains one motivator for the move: "Many of today's top performers are insisting that venues have sustainability and recycling programs, and are only willing to appear at arenas that make a serious effort to provide event-goers with high-quality recycling." So is installing two fancy vending machines a "serious effort" towards sustainability and recycling?

The Technology Works
The concept is not new. Tomra has over 18,000 machines in Germany alone, over a quarter of their worldwide installations. The machines serve an integral role in Germany's deposit system, using high-tech bottle recognition techniques to ensure that the €0.25 refunded to consumers for bottle returns really comes out of the funds collected when the beverage was sold, and to prevent fraudulent attempts to collect on the deposit system. If you have never seen one of these machines suck in and test a bottle before accepting it or spitting it back out, check out the video above.

Even where the sorting is not as tricky as under a deposit-refund cycle, the Tomra recognition technology makes a difference: contamination significantly reduces the value of recycling waste streams, sometimes reducing large masses of plastic raw materials to being burned. Collection machines can also sort, shred, and/or compact received cans and bottles, making the storage and transport of post-consumer materials cheaper.

Tomra recycling reverse vending machine dunkin donuts image

Image: Dunkin' Donuts Center credit Marianne Groszko, Tomra
So Who is the Winner at The Dunk?
The Dunkin' Donuts Center is installing two of Tomra's UNO model machines. The press release states, and the product specs confirm, that each UNO machine can collect up to 500 beverage containers. That is capacity for a thousand containers in an arena with over 10,000 seat capacity? Well, let's hope The Dunk's "serious effort to provide event-goers with high-quality recycling" has some other facets to it? Or maybe they are starting small, to see if the attendees at monster truck jams, sporting events and concerts are willing to line up for the chance to do the right thing for the environment.

But we all win if systems for recycling work. If a lottery approach proves to be successful, it could ride a marketing wave to infiltrate and take over areas without deposit laws to drive recycling. The Dunk wins by reducing waste hauling costs by $1400 per month. Coca-cola wins with a green marketing coup.

More in Recycling:
Recycling is Bullshit; Make Nov. 15 Zero Waste Day, not America Recycles Day
Clever Cup Design Reduces Waste, Simplifies Recycling
Recycling Bins From Around the World
Forums: How to get people to recycle

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