Long message riles Philadelphia recycling patrons

Posted: December 10, 2009

Bob Shalala says he's too old to use a computer to sign up for Philadelphia's new incentive-based recycling program. So the retired Philadelphia police officer opted for the telephone version instead.

Which meant he sat through a recording that he timed at nearly 32 minutes.

Which, perhaps not surprisingly, infuriated him.

Him and, in all likelihood, more than a few others.

The rewards program, which will begin next year, was announced last Thursday. As of Tuesday, 621 people had signed up by phone with RecycleBank, which is administering the program. Exactly how many made it through the recording is unclear.

In response to complaints, the company has changed its procedure, nixing the interminable thing. (Which they say was just 15 minutes long.) They are working on a new - shorter - substitute that they hope to have ready by Monday.

"Good. Yes. Excellent," was Shalala's reaction.

"I'm all for recycling," he added. "I think it can work." But as for the recording - whatever its precise length - "that's a long dissertation."

RecycleBank is a for-profit company co-founded by Ron Gonen, a former area resident and graduate of Germantown Academy. It runs programs in 20 states, including more than two dozen area municipalities such as Newtown Township and Cherry Hill.

The program gives people points for the amount of material recycled. The points can be redeemed for coupons or discounts at hundreds of area and national businesses, or donated to charity.

Those incentives, the company says, could add up to a value of about $240 a year for an average family.

But to get the rewards, people have to sign up. Those who go online at www.PhillyRecyclingPays.com are presented with a visual version of the agreement - the kind of thing people invariably ignore, clicking directly on "I agree." Finished!

Alas, things don't work quite that way on the phone. Thus, the recording.

Why so long? "It's 15 minutes because a lot of lawyers got together," said RecycleBank spokeswoman Lisa Pomerantz, adding, "We're just being up-front. 'This is the program, this is what it means, this is how it works.' "

People may need to know, for instance, that some of the coupons may have an expiration date. Or that using some requires a minimum purchase. Or that coupons offered one week may differ from those offered the next.

Michael Strobel, RecycleBank's head of customer service, said it would be too expensive to send the terms of agreement by mail. Figuring that 50,000 of the city's 540,000 households might sign up by phone, and counting postage, paper and manpower, the effort could total $75,000, he said.

Plus, said Pomerantz, considering that waste reduction is the point of the endeavor, "we don't like to print a lot of materials that we don't need to."

The company now plans for the phone rep (at 1-888-769-7960) who signs up customers to read a version condensed to five main points, then offer the full recording with the caveat that it lasts 15 minutes.

The program is set to begin in February in North Philadelphia, rolling out monthly to other neighborhoods.

Those who sign up will be mailed a radio tag for their container - any they choose - that the city collection truck will then "read."

Reward points for individuals will be based on the amount of waste their community as a whole keeps from the waste stream.

Whatever the city saves as a result - for now, it pays $64 to landfill a ton of waste, but 33 cents to recycle it - will be shared with RecycleBank, based on a sliding scale.

As of 5 p.m. yesterday, 3,247 people from virtually every zip code in the city had signed up for the program, both online and by phone, said Andrew Stober, a spokesman for the mayor's office of transportation and utilities.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com.

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