Buy a Big Mac, Pay with Cans: Recycling's Latest Clever Coups

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Here's a truly terrifying thought: In 2012, researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine deduced that the cumulative global population weighed 316 million tons (that's about 632 billion pounds). By comparison, that year, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that Americans alone generated 251 million tons of trash.

The silver lining here, according to the EPA, was that 34.5 percent of all U.S. municipal solid waste was recycled in 2012, the highest level on record, and a remarkable increase from the 10.1 percent recycling rate registered in 1985. However, about 135 million tons of municipal solid waste still wound up in landfills. And that means the question of how we can cut lower that volume remains an important issue -- and not just in the U.S., but around the world.

A handful of states, including California and New York, have long attempted to boost recycling by offering a cash redemption value for beverage containers returned to a recycling center. Yes, rewarding people with a direct payment for socially responsible behavior is generally a good motivator -- but it isn't the only solution.

Businesses Step Up to the Plate

The next step down that road is being taken by corporations that have tasked themselves with providing a good example for the rest of us. These three have taken an unorthodox approach to recycling: They're experimenting with treating recycled cans or bottles like currency -- and letting customers buy their goods or services with them directly.

  • In Sweden, McDonald's (MCD) and DDB Stockholm have teamed up to start swapping burgers for recyclable cans. Billboards placed around the city, complete with their own supply of plastic bags, encourage people trade 10 empty cans for either a hamburger or cheeseburger, or 40 for a Big Mac. It's a win-win for everyone involved, as it should lead to an increase in recycling rates within the city, and it gives McDonald's some positive PR -- which it needs even more in the United States.

  • Coca-Cola (KO) joined forces with the Grey Dhaka ad agency to set up half a dozen Happiness Arcades across Bangladesh's capital a few months ago. The catch was that instead of running on coins, the video games machines would only accept empty plastic bottles through a customized slot. Drop in a bottle, play your game. The goal is to create an positive association about recycling among Dhaka's youth -- an emotional link between recycling and fun -- and to increase awareness about the problem.

  • Beijing Incom, a privately held company, is attempting to revolutionize passenger travel one bottle at a time. In an effort to improve plastic bottle collection and boost its own revenue (primarily through ad placement on collection devices), Incom in 2012 announced it would set up more than 100 recycle-to-ride devices in the city's subway system. Consumers will be credited between 1 and 2 cents for each polyethylene terephthalate bottle inserted into Incom's collection devices, adding up to free subway tickets.

Good for the Bottom Line, Good for the Planet

These creative recycling initiatives demonstrate the advantages to be had by businesses going green -- both within their own walls and in the public eye. Companies can potentially see benefits in four ways:

  1. They boost their public image. More so than ever, consumers want to buy from companies they trust and believe in. A company that does what it can to reduce its waste and protect the environment could certainly garner brownie points from consumers.

  2. Reducing waste can lower expenses. If businesses are able to reuse prior waste or generate less waste from the start, it could be a quick and simple way to improve margins over the long run.

  3. Half of U.S. states offer tax incentives or credits to companies that have gone green and promote recycling in the workplace. The most common practice is a credit of 10 percent to 50 percent on recycling equipment purchase costs.

  4. Most importantly, recycling is a boon for the environment. Less waste means fewer landfills and a more efficient use of our natural resources. As the EPA points out, recycling a single ton of paper can save 17 trees and 7,000 gallons of water.

In other words, the push to recycle is only gaining steam. Don't be surprised if additional companies adopt unorthodox plans in the near future to simultaneously promote recycling awareness and boost their brand image.

Motley Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on Twitter @TMFUltraLong. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. Check outour free reporton high-yielding dividend stocks.