The city of Beijing has come up with an ingenious idea to encourage people to recycle more. It has installed 34 “reverse” vending machines in subway stations throughout the city. When a passerby inserts an empty plastic bottle, the machine’s sensor scans it to assess the value of the plastic – anywhere from 5 to 15 cents – and spits out a public transportation credit or extra mobile phone minutes. The reward is commensurate with the quality and number of bottles being fed into the machine, although there is also the option for people such as tourists, who don’t need the rewards, to insert bottles anyways.
Most of the recycling machines, according to Recycling Today, are placed in high-traffic or touristy areas, such as the Temple of Heaven, which sees as many as 60,000 people pass by daily. When you consider that most people have a plastic bottle of something in their hands, whether it’s water or soda, that’s a whole lot of plastic that city officials don’t want to see littered on the ground. This system, with its free rewards, makes recycling more appealing, and is a good step forward for a city that’s already notorious for its environmental degradation.
The idea is catching on. In Sydney, where TakePart reports that “beverage containers now outstrip cigarette butts as the most littered item,” the city officials placed Envirobank reverse vending machines throughout the city. Unlike traditional recycling bins, where people would throw regular garbage and contaminate the recycling, making it hard or impossible to process, this machine only fits plastic bottles and soda cans. Because it immediately crushes them, each Envirobank can hold up to 3,000 items. The rewards are nice – food truck vouchers, tickets to the city’s famous New Year’s Eve party, and bus passes.
While I think these initiatives are great, they don’t really solve the bigger issue of disposable plastic. Recycling, as useful and good as it can be, is not an ideal solution. Plastic can never be fully recycled, but is always ‘down-cycled’ into a lesser form of itself until it cannot be reworked and eventually gets landfilled. The most important task is to educate people about the importance of reusability, and get people off their addictions to bottled water and soda and onto using reusable bottles and cups.