MIT project tries to turn trash into a game
November 9th, 2011
04:16 PM ET

MIT project tries to turn trash into a game

By John D. Sutter, CNN

Here's the problem with recycling: It's boring.

But maybe it doesn't have to be. A Boston company called Greenbean Recycle is trying to make the act of keeping bottles and cans out of the landfill into a fun, competitive and engaging game for students at MIT.

The new company, which won an innovation prize this week from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has converted a beefy recycling machine on MIT's campus into a point tabulator of sorts. When students approach the high-tech trash can to dump in their recyclables, they punch their phone number on a touch screen. A bar-code reader in the machine counts the number of cans, bottles and the like that the person has dropped off - and then uploads that data to Greenbean's website.

Recyclers can track their progress online, and even engage in competitions with fellow students.

"We want to be like the Zynga of recycling," said CEO Shanker Sahai, 38, referring the maker of such social games as "FarmVille."

Competitions between fraternities at MIT have been particularly fruitful, he said, with the houses trying to compete against each other to get the top spot on an online recycling leaderboard.

There are some real-world rewards, too.

Greenbean has offered free gift cards for people who recycle more cans and bottles than anyone else on campus during a given time period. He envisions giving away Red Sox tickets and other goodies, provided by sponsors, to entice people to recycle more.

He's not the only one trying to turn trash and recycling into a game.

Volkswagen in 2009 created a Bottle Bank Arcade that made cool, game-ified noises when people dropped bottles into recycling containers. Check out this brilliant little video about the project, which was part of the company's Fun Theory promotion:

There's also a network called the Recycle Bank that gives people points and rewards for doing eco-things.

Greenbean's "reverse vending machine," which is manufactured by a company called Tomra, gives recyclers rewards for cans and bottles that offer return discounts - usually about 5 cents in Massachusetts. Those rewards are automatically deposited in a recycler's PayPal account, on his or her MIT spending card or donated to a charity the person has selected online, Sahai said.

The project started this summer and, as of Wednesday afternoon, had recycled nearly 14,000 containers, saving an estimated 2,500 kilowatt hours of electricity, according to the website. The company plans to expand to Tufts and other Boston-area universities later this year and in the spring. Eventually, Sahai wants to take the idea of game-recycling to condos.

Giving people instant data about the positive impact their recycling makes is key, he said.

"We live in this era of instant gratification - and no one has done that for recycling," he said. "But Greenbean will."

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Filed under: Innovation • Tech • Thinkers
soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. being healthy

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    April 15, 2012 at 7:51 am | Reply
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      September 24, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
    • Waqas

      made a lot of sense. But, think about this, what if you added a little cteonnt? I mean, I dont want to tell you how to run your blog, but what if you added something to maybe get peoples attention? Just like a video or a picture or two to get people excited about what youve got to say. In my opinion, it would make your blog come to life a little bit.

      September 26, 2012 at 2:38 am | Reply
  2. Tara

    WOW- such an awesome idea- and to see it in action is fantastic! Well done!!! I would love to see this concept in schools to make recycling fun and good for the environment. It would be great to anayle the data to see who consumes – how much and what types of products are most recycled :)

    March 26, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  3. PJRG

    Not impressed... Could think of many other ways to make trash recycling more efficient.. Trash depositing games are just darn boring. A 4 year old could do better...

    November 18, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Reply
    • Kristina

      There have been many recycling initiatives, but regretfully not all of them have been successful. Any particular suggestions you can offer?

      January 15, 2012 at 1:36 am | Reply
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  8. wildbill1111

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    November 11, 2011 at 10:37 am | Reply
    • Charles

      pnprneckec on October 20, 2011 Taken because its a action/myst. and playing the dad would be great. Get to go and find those that taken his daughter. Bust drug ring and illeage selling of womn for prostution. I think the story line is built for it.

      February 19, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
      • Don

        The People's Resource Center in Wheaton takes computers (call first: they have some gneeiliuds) which they wipe clean, load with new programs, and give to people in need, but only AFTER the people take training classes in computer usage which can help them to get jobs. Great way to recycle, great way to teach a man to fish. I've donated, and also gotten a tax receipt.

        September 24, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  9. Nathan Sokalski

    I wish they had had any recycling at the university I went to. I don't care about the game, but since all my drinks were from vending machines, it would have been a nice addition.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:51 am | Reply
    • Jenay

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      January 14, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Reply
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  10. John Collins

    It is great when technology is used for improving our lives.

    November 10, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Reply
  11. Ecovative Idea

    This idea is very innovative - it is taking a group of people who otherwise wouldn't act sustainably (eg reusable bottle), and sparking campus-wide activity ... And oh yeah, national awareness because it got picked up by CNN. Ecovative ideas has a lot of great ideas just like this one.

    November 10, 2011 at 11:05 am | Reply
  12. Rod C. Venger

    That's not innovation. It's evolution.

    November 9, 2011 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  13. Jordan Fox

    CNN's technology section of it's site is woefully inadequate. I beg a CNN writer looking at this to go over to The Verge, Engadget, or any other Tech website and look at how Tech news should be talked about. We are after all, on the internet.

    November 9, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Reply
    • John Sutter

      Genuinely wondering: What would you like to see more of? Or what do you see in those sites that you don't see here? –John/CNN

      November 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Reply
      • Andrey

        I'd like to see authors taking an interest in what readers are saying. Wait, you just did that... kudos.

        John, this was a good article.

        November 11, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
      • timothyc

        I hope that was actually John Sutter. There should be a flag or other method for CNN authors or moderators to indicate that they are genuine.

        November 13, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  14. kara

    True but on college campuses and other public areas it would reward those that pick up trash that is not otherwise being recycled, not necessarily encouraging one to consume more. Do you know how many "points" you could earn for cleaning up after a frat party? http://www.custommonogrammedgifts.com

    November 9, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Reply
    • azmaines

      HA! Excellent point! I guess what bothers me most about this system, though not without it's merits, is the notion of combating behaviors rooted in 'instant gratification' with a system built around the idea of providing instant gratification. How about building a water cooler right next to this that scans a laser etched bottle each time you fill it up. Now we're talking!

      November 9, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  15. azmaines

    Does anyone else see the irony here? Recyling has become increasingly necessary, but this system is actually rewarding those participating for using more. The three R's are not mutually exclusive. They're saying, forget about buying a refillable water bottle. Keep using disposable ones and maybe you'll get a gift card.

    November 9, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Reply
    • Schmedley

      any plastic bottle with a screw on cap is refillable. The issue is that on the average the majority of people don't want to deal with refilling bottles. It's just the way it is and I don't see it changing anytime soon. So as long as they're going to throw the bottles away, you might as well give them an incentive to recycle it.

      Expecting society to change and reuse everything is not realistic so I think it is not a bad idea to just adapt to what society is doing and make it productive in some way.

      November 9, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Reply
      • Nathan Sokalski

        It's not that they refuse to refill them, it's that the machines don't refill them, they are vending machines, not refilling machines. I think there should be a law that says there must be at least one recycle container within a certain distance of any machine that dispenses bottles, because I always want to recycle my bottles, but when I was a student living in the dorms at college there were soda machines all over the place, but I could never find a recycle bin (and I was there for 5 years, so I had looked everywhere).

        November 11, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
      • alex

        @Nathan "I think there should be a law that says there must be a recycling container within a certain distance"!! Why on earth do we need a law for this. It would be useless to require the bin in proximity to the machine because often one does not stay around the machine while they consume the beverage. So why not require recycling bins next to every trash can. Why even stop there then. I don't know about your college but mine always had plenty of recycling which was in part due to a student body that wanted it and pushed for it. If you want recycling on campus then find a group of students and approach the school. I am sure it would be easy for them to add bins if students asked for them. Half the problem with this world is that certain people think we need these laws for everything we could easily do ourselves. Don't just turn to the government to do everything for you. Try and enact social change by pushing your employer, schools, malls and cities, to provide bins. If people want them they and use them they will appear.

        November 12, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
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  16. me

    I want one.

    November 9, 2011 at 5:05 pm | Reply

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