Social media has taken over so many aspects of our lives it seems inevitable that it would make inroads into recycling. Shanker Sahai is founder and CEO of Greenbean Recycle, a startup that hopes to revolutionize the reverse vending machine concept in bottle bill states.
Reverse vending machines are kiosks that accept recyclable bottles and cans, scanning UPC codes and spitting out a paper receipt that can be cashed at the stores in which they are housed. Sahai recounts the day he began to lose patience with the process: “The line was really long to get my five cents. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go home.’ I put the little receipt back into my pocket, went home, did my laundry and lost the receipt.
“That was when the frustration started.”
In fact, Sahai’s frustrations with the reverse vending process were threefold: Why the paper receipt, restricting the location of reverse vending machines to retail locations? Why do the machines only accept containers for beverages sold in the stores in which they are located (Sahai would redeem his containers at liquor stores simply because they sold the broadest range of beverages)? Finally, and perhaps most crucially, even after going out of his way to collect and turn in his recyclables, Sahai felt disconnected from the recycling process. “What happens to this stuff? I collect it myself and do all of this work. What do I see out of it?”
Sahai developed Greenbean to address these concerns. The machines, manufactured by Tomra Systems ASA, debuted on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Students identify themselves using a phone number before depositing bottles and cans. Greenbean eliminates the paper receipt, instead transmitting payment to a PayPal account, a charity of the user’s choice or, in the case of MIT, a student account called TechCASH. Because deposits do not need to be redeemed in a store, the machines can be installed anywhere. Moreover, because it’s not tethered to a store, the machine accepts any and all beverage containers, even those that do not carry a deposit. Finally, users can view their recycling totals on the Greenbean website and on Facebook. The site also tracks the total number of containers diverted and the amount of energy saved (18,713 containers and 3,366.79 kilowatt hours, respectively, at the time of this writing).
The Greenbean system allows for teams, fostering healthy competitions between MIT’s fraternities and student groups. That competition will intensify as Greenbean rolls out to Tufts University and other colleges in the region in coming months. Also on deck in the next few months are deeper integration with Facebook (with more top secret gaming features) and the debut of a smartphone app.
“Isn’t it time we modernize the bottle bill,” asks Sahai, adding that one of his chief goals for Greenbean is to engage young people in recycling. “This is the demographic that is going to change how we recycle and also how we move into the next generation of recyclers.”