If you haven’t heard of RecycleBank, it’s only a matter of time. The company bills itself as a “premier rewards and loyalty program that motivates people to recycle” and the New York Times calls the premise, “elegantly simple.” In brief, RecycleBank partners with municipalities or private haulers to measure household recycling via a smart computer chip in each recycling bin. They then compensate participants based on the quantity of their recyclables.
Founded in 2004, RecyleBank is already active in 18 states. According to Marketing and Communications Director Lisa Pomerantz, Recycle Bank is on pace for exponential growth and projects that by the end of 2009 “We’ll be servicing millions of people as we launch across the states and into the United Kingdom.”
Winner of the World Economic Forum as a 2009 Technology Pioneer, the company won its seed money via the Eugene M. Lang Center for Entrepreneurship award from Columbia Business school. Ron Gonen, CEO and cofounder of RecycleBank, made some time to reflect on scaling the company from his New York City apartment to a growing global enterprise.
Gonen’s attitude, as much as his success, suggests he’s a guy who recognizes opportunity and makes the most of it. He explains, “My commitment to social policy stems from the contradiction I saw growing up in an urban single-parent home in the Reagan/Bush era.” When he snagged a place in private school his mom emphasized his good fortune and encouraged him to give back.
Unsure of how to pursue a fulfilling career, Gonen went for an MBA over a policy degree figuring that business offered contingencies. After graduating, he responded to the tech boom. That experience, consulting and building software systems, gave him the foundation to write EcoStrong. The system manages data from the recycling hauling trucks and measures a household’s environmental footprint. To date, RecycleBank accounts for over 1,485,626 trees spared and 99,239,849 gallons of oil saved.
The idea behind RecyleBank began in reaction to the 2002 media coverage of New York’s failing recycling program. People just weren’t recycling, and facing a budget crisis, the city couldn’t justify the expense. Gonen seized the opportunity to create value.
With the introduction of the incentive program, and using single stream recycling, local participation takes off. Today, community members can redeem points earned by their recycling for coupons for over 1,000 local and national rewards partners.
RecyleBank is in the process of standardizing criteria for these partners. Pomerantz explains that the corporate culture reflects their mission to, “nudge people a deeper shade of green and engage in environmentally virtuous activities.” Notable internal initiatives include one paid volunteer day per quarter, the exclusive use of recycled print materials and soy ink, and staff gift cards to subside personal home efficiency.
One of the advantages of green entrepreneurship says Gonen, is that the staff you attract want responsibility for the business. Rather than dealing on salary, “Being a green company, we can attract an inordinate amount of highly talented, highly motivated people. In this field, people want to work at your company because they want to be fulfilled in their work everyday.”
As the company has grown to a staff of over a hundred, Gonen’s role continues to evolve. These days, he divides his time between human resources, account management, and planning for the company’s future.
The biggest challenge to successful entrepreneurship? Gonen concedes it’s the financials. “We had the opportunity to scale globally but needed capital. The question becomes, how do you raise money without loosing control of your company? I’ve learned that no matter how much money someone is going to give you, no matter how good the valuation, if they’re not a person of strong character, get up from the table and walk away.”
As RecycleBank continues to expand, watch for corporate giving to increase. Collaboration with ActiveCause allows participants to donate, rather than redeem, their points. In 2008, the program led to $81,000 in charitable contributions.
When RecyleBank shows up curbside in your community, let us know how they’re doing…