In Istanbul, Your Recyclables Can Reduce Your Subway Fare

There's more than one way for a ride on Istanbul's large tram network. Maurits90/Wikimedia commons

Istanbul residents have a new way to pay for rides on public transportation. You might expect this payment method would have something to do with bitcoin, QR codes, or even a smartphone app, but you'd be wrong. Some of Istanbul's train stations now have vending machines that offer fare credit in exchange for recycling plastic bottles or cans.

A machine that pays you to recycle

To take advantage of this unusual offer, riders need a stored value transit card. Since these cards offer discounted fares, almost all riders have them. Thrifty commuters can drop their plastic bottles into the machine, which will assign a value to the recycled materials based on makeup and size. The device then adds that value to the recycler's card. The "reverse vending machines" also accept aluminum cans. They shred the bottles or cans after the transaction to prepare them for processing.

Can you pay for your ride with nothing but cans and bottles? Earning enough for a roundtrip subway fare might prove difficult, but it's possible. According to The New York Times, you'd need more than two dozen standard-size plastic bottles to earn a free trip, so most recycling efforts lead to a discounted fare instead of a free trip. (The Times did report that aluminum cans are worth more than plastic when deposited into the machines.)

The first recycling machines were installed at the İTÜ-Ayazağa metro station. The city plans to introduce at least 100 more vending machines in stations and other public places (such as schools) in the near future, according to Lonely Planet. Though the transit cards, called Istanbul Cards (or Istanbulkart), are for subways, you can also use them on other forms of public transit (such as trams and buses) and even to cover the admission to public pay-in restrooms.

Good for the environment and your wallet

Turkey has been at odds with the European Union lately, and political tensions and outright wars just outside of the country's borders have not helped the economy. In this climate, Turks and tourists looking to save a few lira may welcome the chance to recycle in exchange for a discounted trip. Some may even consider bringing in a week's worth of bottles and cans to top of their Istanbulkart.

Turkey produces the most waste of any European country after Germany and France. Unlike these two Western European powers, recycling is very limited in Turkey. The reverse vending machines are one way that the city plans to encourage recycling. In a statement on Twitter, the municipal government put a tech-savvy spin on the recycling idea. "With these smart machines, our waste management department and the municipality's Smart City Technologies Company [İsbak] will contribute to the protection of the environment ... We are continuing to pioneer in solid waste management."

Istanbul, a city of about 15 million people, produces 17,000 tons of waste, on average, each day. Only about a third of that gets processed at garbage or recycling centers.

Indonesia's recycling for fares program lets you ride the bus for free

The idea of offering incentive to recycle isn't a novel one. Actually, neither is offering discounted public transit fares in exchange for recycling. A less-high-tech (but more accessible) version of the used-plastic-bottles-for-fares plan is taking off in Indonesia. People can ride city buses in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, for two hours for 10 plastic cups or five plastic bottles, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or CBC. (The actual number of recyclables that a fare costs depends on their size). Riders can recycle at bus terminals and stations in exchange for a ticket, and in some scenarios, they can pay their fare in bottles or cups right on the bus.

Surabaya bus
Surabaya's red buses accept plastic bottles and cups instead of cash fares or tickets. INDONESIAPIX/Shutterstock

A Surabayan bus can collect more than 500 pounds of plastic each day. That's a significant amount, especially when you consider that Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, is the second biggest contributor to plastic waste in the oceans after China. Garbage disposal services and garbage pickers can't keep up with demand in Surabaya (and many other large cities in Indonesia), so the incentive program may help make a dent in the amount of refuse on streets.

A growing trend?

Beijing, China started offering recycling in exchange for credit on public transit cards long before Istanbul. The PRC's capital launched its first reverse vending machine in 2012. Incentivizing recycling and getting people to use public transportation can have positive (albeit modest) effects on the environment. Istanbul's high tech efforts are the latest in what seems to be becoming a trend.