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."