What If Consumers Could Actually Earn Money for Recycling?

Consumer surveys routinely demonstrate that the vast majority of Americans believe strongly in recycling. It is something that we all feel is important. Still, it’s also something that we don’t do enough of. Why is that? And more importantly, could something as simple as paying consumers to recycle be the solution?

Consider a scenario in which consumers could actually earn money to recycle. We would have to work for that money, of course, but the ability to pocket some cash might be a strong enough motivation to do the work.

Proof That It Could Work

Paying consumers to recycle may seem preposterous on its face. But we already have proof that it could work under the right conditions. Consider the following:

1. Bottle Redemption Laws

A couple of decades ago, states began passing bottle redemption laws. Those laws required retailers to charge a deposit on certain types of aluminum cans and plastic and glass bottles. In order to get deposit money back, a consumer would have to return the empty containers to a redemption center.

Bottle redemption laws have proved remarkably successful over the years. People are willing to take their cans and bottles back to the store for redemption. In addition, an entire army of people are willing to pick up cans and bottles found lying along roadways and on the beach in order to return them for the redemption money.

2. Curbside Scrappers

The next example is found in curbside scrappers who scour the streets on trash day looking for metal, paper, and glass they can take to the local scrapyard. Paper and glass were big business 30 years ago. These days, metals like copper and aluminum are the hot scrapper items.

3. Industrial Plastic Recycling

Since consumer plastics seem to be everyone’s main concern, we can look to industrial plastic recycling as proof that the concept works. In Tennessee, Seraphim Plastics runs a 7-state operation that profitably recycles industrial plastic waste. They put in the work because doing so earns them a tidy profit.

Profit Is a Strong Motivator

The ability to make a profit is strong motivation to do all sorts of things. Indeed, that’s why we all go to work. We work to earn a paycheck, not because we are feeling altruistic. Likewise, businesses are formed and built for the sole purpose of making a profit.

Municipal recycling – at least where plastic as concerned – has proved a colossal failure because it is unprofitable. It is unprofitable because there is too much work involved. But what if consumers could be paid to do that work?

If we adopted the industrial plastic recycling model and applied it to consumer recycling with some slight modifications, it could be just as profitable. Here is what it would take:

  • Consumers being willing to clean and sort materials at home
  • Recyclers willing to pick up materials directly from homes
  • Manufacturers willing to buy recycled materials.

Making this work would require eliminating municipal involvement. Why? Because municipal recycling programs act as ‘middlemen’ of sorts, intermediaries whose knack for inefficiency only adds to the cost of recycling.

What you want is a business transaction between recycling company and consumer. That sort of transaction mimics what happens in the industrial sector. Consumers sell already cleaned and sorted plastics to recyclers at a fair price. Recyclers turn those materials into products they can sell to manufacturers.

If we could devise a process that would pay consumers to recycle, we could actually turn consumer recycling from a failure into a success story. Will that ever happen? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

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