Suwar Mert and Berfin Mert co-founded the Bower app together in Sweden. (Image: Daniel Stigefelt/Bower)
Plastic permeates almost every aspect of our lives. Most of us know that we need to tackle the scale of plastic waste but it’s not always easy.
Experts and campaigners agree the best way to reduce plastic pollution is to reduce production and consumption of it, but recycling plastic is an increasingly popular stop-gap.
Incentivising people to recycle isn’t easy though. Not everyone knows what can and can’t be recycled, and what items can be recycled at home or at a local recycling centre instead.
Enter Bower Recycling, an app that rewards users with money and coupons or donations to charitable causes when they recycle everyday waste items.
“We know the financial incentive works,” Suwar Mert, co-founder of Bower, told the Big Issue. “If you look at countries that have these incentives, the recycling rates are nearly 90 per cent whereas countries that don’t have these incentives, the rate can be less than 10 per cent.”
Schemes that provide financial incentives for recycling have been successful in places like Germany, Finland, Norway, and Canada, where recycling rates are above 90 per cent. But only 44.4 per cent of household waste in the UK was recycled in 2020 and 63.3 per cent of packaging waste was recycled in 2021.
“What we have done is taken that financial incentive mindset and made it possible to do that for all types of packaging, using whatever existing infrastructure is in place,” Mert said, describing Bower as an additional resource for people to be able to recycle.
In the UK, people use nearly 14 billion plastic bottles and nine billion cans every year. Only around 70 per cent of those are recycled.
“Each bottle or item that isn’t being recycled is impacting the planet. The time for us to take responsibility for packaging was yesterday.”
Since its creation in 2015, Bower has gained around 430,000 users across Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. One in 10 are “monthly scanners and recyclers”, Mert said, recycling around 2 million items a month.
“We estimate that 1.5 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions have been saved due to the recycling,” he added, the equivalent of emissions from over 300 passenger vehicles driven for one year.
But that’s not enough: “There is so much more for us to do. I would say, when we have 4.3 billion users using Bower to recycle, then we’re doing great work.”
Bower launched a pilot programme in both the UK and the US late last year to fine-tune how it could work in countries that do not have a widely established recycling culture.
The app is widely available to download on both the Apple and Google Play app stores UK now.
The company itself doesn’t have any recycling facilities, the app “pinpoints and informs consumers where they can recycle their items in that area” using the location services on mobile devices. Once a user scans their recycling in the right collection bin, they will receive rewards for doing so.
After making an account on the app, it will ask you to set up your most commonly used recycling locations, whether that’s a household recycling bin provided by the council, bins on the street, or a larger recycling facility. Once you’ve set up your recycling location, you can then start scanning the barcodes of any product you want to recycle and the app will give you ‘points’ that can be redeemed for a variety of rewards.
Rewards range from vouchers and discounts at grocery stores, to online retailers and even West End musicals. Beyond the environmental concerns, there’s a powerful financial incentive during a cost of living crisis. Mert stressed that whatever rewards are offered with Bower have to “align with [their] values”.
“We don’t want to increase sales of people buying more plastic or things they don’t need, and further overconsumption,” he said.
Users can withdraw cash to their bank account once they have reached a certain threshold or donate the money to NGOs and charitable organisations.
How does Bower know whether people are really recycling though or just faking it for the cash? The company said: “In terms of fraudulence, the team uses a mix of automatic flagging and manual checks to prevent fraudulent behaviour, banning those users from continued use of the app. The app also checks that you are at the registered station when recycling.”
It’s not foolproof but, as with traditional recycling too, there is an element of relying on having faith in people to actually recycle their items instead of just binning it.
This is not the first, nor the last, recycling incentive scheme in the UK. The government is planning a deposit return scheme (DRS) which will give consumers cashback when they recycle plastic bottles and cans at specified “reverse vending machines”.
Environment minister Rebecca Pow previously said that the scheme would “support people who want to do the right thing” and “provide a simple and effective system across the country that helps people reduce litter and recycle more easily”.
But it will not be in place until 2025 and will exclude glass recycling, which led to criticism from campaigners.
Mert said he hopes Bower can “bridge the gap” until the official DRS is in place and allow users to recycle other items not included in the scheme: “It’s better to have a solution in place now rather than waiting because what if the scheme needs to be postponed again? We need to have a solution today.”
“The world is not waiting,” he added.
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