The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

October 5, 2013

What Do You Think of Rewards Programs? Are Some Better Than Others?

I just watched Annie Leonard’s Latest Video from The Story of Stuff Project: The Story of Solutions.  And I have a few thoughts that might not be entirely popular.  Here’s the video:

In it, Annie argues that not all “solutions” to our environmental and social problems are created equal. Some solutions simply promote the status quo, while others are “game changers.” And I’m excited to see that she has decided to use plastic pollution solutions as an example.  According to The Story of Solutions:

Plastic Bag Ban = Game Changing Solution

Plastic Recycling Incentive (such as gift cards for putting stuff in your recycle bin) = Status Quo

You’ll have to watch the video to understand her reasons for classifying these two kinds of “solutions” this way. But I’d just like to offer my take on incentive programs: I don’t think they are all created equal either. Sure, it would be nice if people would make changes because it’s the right thing to do. But is it practical to expect that most people will? Um… not based on the kinds of comments I read on mainstream sites like Yahoo or AOL. We’ve got to make doing the right thing attractive to people. So then, the question is, what kind of behavior do we want to incentivize?

Recyclebank = Status Quo

I totally agree with Annie that programs like Recyclebank (which gives people rewards based on the amount of stuff in their recycle bins) simply promote more consumption. (Note: Annie did not mention Recyclebank by name, but I have no problem naming names.) Recyclebank’s home recycling program doesn’t reward you for reducing your consumption and thereby reducing the amount of stuff in your recycle bin.  It only rewards people who recycle.  So for example, the more bottled beverages you consume, the more bottles you can recycle, and the more you can earn. The more disposable plastic you use, the more you get rewarded… as long as you toss that plastic in your recycle bin instead of your trash can.  So ultimately, Recyclebank just encourages more consumption of single use disposable products, more energy use, more resource extraction, more stuff.

TraX = Step in the Right Direction?

I can’t believe I haven’t already written about TraX, a new Facebook program to reward people for bringing their own reusable cups, straws, and bags when they go out.  In fact, I thought I had, and just spent about 10 minutes searching my blog to find the post that I thought for sure I had written.  Well, okay, this will be that post.

To participate in the program, you take a picture with your smartphone while actually using your bag, cup, or straw and then upload it to Facebook or Instagram (depending on the program) and give it a specific hashtag.


You receive 25 cents per action, up to $1 per day, on a gift card account.  The rewards are sponsored by various entities.  Right now, ChicoBag sponsors the bag program;  Simply Straws, the straw program;  and Clean Water Fund, a non-profit, the cup program.

You receive your rewards via email to a Tango gift card account.  No need to ever have an actual plastic gift card.  Rewards can be used to buy stuff, yes, but they can also be used to donate to non-profit organizations.

Is this a perfect program?  No.  You still only get rewarded for buying things… you don’t get credit for filling your reusable cup with coffee from home or carrying your own stuff in your reusable bag or sipping a homemade milk shake through your reusable straw.  But the purpose of the program is to encourage people who would have used single use disposable products to remember to opt for reusables instead.  Unlike Recyclebank, it actively discourages consumption of disposable, single-use plastics.

The other drawback to TraX, of course, is that you have to have a smartphone and a Facebook and/or Instagram account to use it.  If your anti-stuff lifestyle precludes that kind of technology, then you won’t be rewarded through this program.  But I have a little secret for you: Even Annie Leonard has a smartphone.  As do I.  I’ll write more about my phone and my thought processes–some would say rationalizations–that lead to acquiring it in another post.  For now, let’s just recognize that even a program like TraX encourages a certain amount of consumption.  But would you agree that it’s a step in the right direction?

Do People Need Monetary Rewards?

Well, not everyone does.  I personally used TraX a few times and then forgot to do it.  I don’t need a monetary incentive to carry my own bags and travel mug and straw because apparently, I’m one of those geeks that gets a dopamine high just from reducing waste.  Not bragging — it’s just how I am.  But I recognize that not everyone is as committed (some would say “extreme”) as I am.

So what do you think about rewards programs in general?  What kinds of programs do you think are beneficial and which kinds just promote the status quo?

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10 years ago

I agree with a lot of the comments here. We are constantly being rewarded for things… Like using your credit card, buying more, recycling more… Society has gotten so used to the idea of being rewarded for the things they do, it has become more of an expectation to be “rewarded” for everything you do (which can be an entire separate conversation in itself). Of course, this means that the things we are rewarded for are not always the right thing! So who cares if I get rewarded or not for recycling that plastic bag! Who cares if I get a lousy $.05 if I bring my reusable bag into Target! Most people will see a nickel on the ground and not bother to pick it up anymore. It seems society responds better to negative reinforcement than positive. We, as a whole, have been conditioned to believe that we need more. As soon as you start taking things away from people, they suddenly listen up. When a teacher tells a student to stop talking in class, they don’t follow it with a, “your grades will surely improve!” They say, “or you’ll miss recess!” Until we can change the way our society covets (more), then we cannot expect rewards to make a huge impact. I’m not even sure I can say that it’s a step in the right direction, because we aren’t solving the real problem, which is the fact that everyone thinks they deserve more. Until that mentality changes, people will continue to want more.

10 years ago

I think the onus should be on the producer of the problem, i.e., the companies, stores, local governments, etc. that give us no choice. If it’s true a local ordinance prevents one from using their own container, then that municipality needs to be responsible for the alternative, as does the store for allowing this disgrace to continue. Costs of “recycling”/disposing of plastics should be on the manufacturer who uses it, NOT the folks purchasing. In an ideal world, this would of course not allow producers of the waste to pass on to the consumer the costs, but should hurt the company so much they come up with a better alternative (with rewards?).
It worked (kinda) with polluters in the past, bet it would work with the present day plastic polluters! Companies get away with ridiculous advertising about being “green” while they pass on the problem to the consumer, and, by the way, to their employees who are constantly exposed to the stuff.
Of course, sigh, we don’t live in an ideal world, and we don’t have many legislators willing to stand up to big business these days. And, I know, I’m “preaching to the choir” here!
So, back to personal responsibility….

10 years ago

I think we have such a consumer-driven society anyways and so many people who don’t recycle (or don’t know what is recyclable) that getting those people to put recyclables in the recycling is a good first step. If this can be done through an incentive program, great. If through recycling laws and enforcement, great. I lived in Las Vegas for a few years and got annoyed every trash day when my neighbor had 2 overflowing trash cans (twice per week!) and I could see they were filled with recyclables. And they NEVER put out recycling. The way I see it, these people are more the norm than me/us, so encouraging them to recycle is more realistic than encouraging them to reduce consumption of single-use items. That can come later with more understanding of what happens to recyclables (i.e. in Las Vegas recycling actually cost the trash company money since the city is so far from any company that would buy the recycled material).

No, we shouldn’t need rewards for people to do the right thing. But I’m sure there are many citizens who would not want the government telling them what types of plastic they can and can’t buy, or what type of materials companies can and can’t use. In this case, rewards are definitely more palatable to the majority of people.

10 years ago

@Tanya you have identified precisely the issue I face in our community – lots of garbage in recycling. The city absolutely refuses to enforce any rules so this problem is unavoidable as long as that holds.
The reason the city will not act is 1) KIND GOVERNMENT: the proper action would be not picking up recycling bins with garbage in them. No pickup would result in citizens angrily calling the city. The city doesn’t want to make citizens angry 2) BUREAUCRACY: the state requires the city to have a recycling program. The city complies by providing gross recycling tonnage figures to the state. Many tons hauled looks good, regardless of what is in it. 3) CONVENIENCE: residents insist on using plastic garbage bags for holding recyclables. There is no way that the guys picking up the bins could open bags to check for garbage, so everything goes. 4) THERE’S GOLD IN THAT TRASH: the recycling company makes a profit, no matter what they collect, just passing on the extra cost of garbage handling to the city.
There is hope. I have started collecting a copy of the annual report that the recycling company gives to the city. The garbage content is getting so out of hand that the latest report for the first time is breaking out the percentage of garbage in the recycling stream (13%!) and it is bound to increase with each year. I’m biding my time until the evidence is overwhelming that something must be done.

10 years ago

I don’t think it will have much impact on the problem. It has things backwards – rewarding people who are doing the right thing rather than creating a cost for people who are doing the wrong thing. People who are oblivious will not be lured by an insignificant reward that requires they do something extra.

Not providing a desired service unless something is done right is unavoidable, like “no shirt, no shoes, no service”.
There has to be an immediate penalty that cannot be avoided. How to work this into a system where the customer is king, always right, and can go to a competitor right down the block makes this approach a challenge to i

10 years ago

Hmmmm. I guess I’m the opposite. Instead of rewards for good behavior, I prefer to see punishment for BAD behavior. I think that it has more of a sticking point. No one likes to be slapped a fine or part with their hard earned cash. Also, if your are burned once you would be more likely to remember the next time around. I mean there are a million rules about parking, why can’t they impose fines for not sorting your trash or exceeding a certain weight limit? And the money raised could go towards government funded programs (ie education). Also I would like to see tougher legislation regarding packaging and environmental practices. For instance, soap. If there was some sort of legislation that ALL manufactured soaps had to be biodegradable and pass certain standards then there wouldn’t even be an option for consumers to buy a non-biodegradable soap… I think you want to make it as easy for consumers as possible to do the right thing. Many people are too consumed by their daily lives to have the time (and also apathy) to do a lot of research on various products to select the one with the least environmental impact. And sometimes it’s just plain overwhelming. Or a more environmental solution isn’t available. Or you have to go way out of your way/add more complexity to find a viable solution. But if tougher legislation existed then bad things would be less of an option in an ideal world. :)
And as long as I’m on a ranting tangent the other thing on my wishlist would be tougher enforcement. For instance, at work we have the 3 bins: garbage, recycling and compost. And you have no idea how MANY times I pull non-compost able items out of the compost bin… At my company we are required each year to take mandatory ethics training, diversity training, applicable regulations training etc. Well, I for one would also like to see “trash sorting” added to that list! Mandatory, company wide, annual training. Not optional. :) These are the types of things that I’m referring to…

10 years ago

BTW, I think your Plastic Free Challenge is the best kind of “Rewards Program” as it is visual, tactile, and most importantly self reinforcing, while still allowing us to be both accountable to others and have a built in support system. The ultimate reward, of course, is having less and less to report. Thank you for starting this phenom!

10 years ago

I’m a geek like you (LOL) & do things like recycling, picking up trash when I see it, buying all my clothes at second hand stores or garage sales, & not buying needlessly simply because I like doing it. But other people think I’m a bit extreme. So while I don’t think reward programs should be necessary, I think they have to be used to get the majority of people to care.

10 years ago

Great post! I guess I’m one of those people who can’t be convinced to buy things just for the rewards. One of the first Apps I put on my iPhone was the one that would keep all my rewards cards organized and off my key chain, but I still have to be given the little plastic cards to download to my phone…. there needs to be a way that if we want rewards from a store or company that we can download our ‘rewards card’ from a website without touching their little plastic card, I think my Ikea rewards were like that. Not that many ‘rewards’ are that rewarding, my most hated is CVS… you used their little card and you don’t get your instant reward, you get a 3 ft piece of paper with coupons that are only good for your next purchase on things you won’t need in the allotted time frame they give you to make your purchase. I have written several emails to the company to complain, to no avail.

As for Recyclebank, what I like the most about it is the educational stand point. I like to give the quizzes to my husband, he had and still has a lot to learn about ecology and being green. He won’t take my word for it when I tell him things that I have learned over the past 40 years since my very first Ecology class in high school, but read to him from a web-site….

10 years ago

I knew nothing about this Trax, I wonder if it exists or is valid outside of the US. Still, I think incentives can skew the market, it might get more people over the line to start doing these things that you (and me) do anyhow, cause of the feel good point of view.

10 years ago

Well, some would argue that providing some sort of monetary incentive actually takes away from the motivation to do something for your own reasons. (Alfie Kohn has a whole book on the subject: “Punished by Rewards”.) I think I’d be more motivated to use something like Trax with the reasoning that posting pictures of byob-in-action might convince my Facebook friends list to do the same. If saving a quarter (or earning it) was my goal, I’d just drink my coffee at home. :-)

10 years ago

Awesome video!
I totally identify with your “dopamine high” – get a similar rush when I see our [almost] empty trash bin on garbage pick-up day! I am hoping to reduce our recycling enough to feel a similar rush.
BTW, They’re starting to do curbside pickup of almost all plastics here, but after the initial thrill, I’m now worried folks will accelerate their rationalization for using plastic “disposables” Argh! NOT a game changer.
On the other hand, I can see TraX being a major game changer for the smartphone crowd. We all do at least some grocery shopping. As usual, kudos for ChicoBag for participating.
Thanks for the info.