Sometimes, it literally pays to live sustainably.

Just ask the residents of Hollywood, Fla. They can earn discounts to national and local businesses just by recycling at home. Or ask Redmond, Wash.’s residents, since they can earn gift cards by commuting to work in any way besides driving alone.

Both of these programs share one other trait: they’re offered through city governments. Those governments are part of a growing group across the country offering programs that incentivize their residents to live more sustainably. 

“There are a lot of cities that offer a variety of [sustainability] incentives,” says Cooper Martin, program director for the National League of Cities’ Sustainable Cities Institute. “I think cities really have two options. One is a mandate, and the other is an incentive. And for most cities, the incentive is just a more attractive way to not only improve their sustainability, but to provide a whole host of other benefits to the city.”

Officials at some of these cities echo Martin’s views, reporting that their incentive programs indeed provide benefits in addition to sustainable practices. Nevertheless, the programs are helping cities accomplish their initial goals—getting residents to take more sustainability-oriented actions.

While they appear in many forms, most of these programs promote energy efficiency, water conservation, traffic (and therefore, emission) reduction or recycling. They’re implemented in cities of all sizes, too — from metropolises like Phoenix to smaller cities like Bozeman, Mont. (pop: 45,250). 
 

Bozeman, Mont.: Water conservation

Water conservation is so important in Bozeman that city officials adopted a 50-year integrated water resources plan in 2013 that called for about 60 percent of Bozeman’s water supply to come from water conservation over that time span, according to Bozeman Water Conservation Technician Jessica Ahlstrom. 

Considerations in that plan led to the establishment of Ahlstrom’s division, and the launch of rate payer-funded rebate programs that reimburse residents and businesses for purchasing more water-conserving appliances and systems. While Bozeman has offered rebates for water- saving toilets since 2008, the city started offering rebates on a variety of water-efficient irrigation systems, clothes washers, showerheads and urinals in mid-2014. 

When an individual or business purchases qualifying equipment, they submit an application to the division with proof of purchase. Once the division processes the application after up to 30 days, the individual or business then receives the rebate in the form of a mailed check, Ahlstrom says. 

The participation has increased over time, Ahlstrom says. Between 2015 and 2016, toilet rebates jumped 49 percent. While showerhead rebates weren’t used much in 2015, spreading awareness of the program led to an increase in usage in 2016.

“I think part of it is, the more the community is aware of our programs, the more likely we are to receive applications,” she says. Outreach efforts include presence at community events, checking in with rebated product vendors and sending materials in bills.

The programs are helping conserve Bozeman’s water. In 2015, the average Bozeman person was using about 115 gallons of water per day. That number decreased to 112 in 2016, Ahlstrom says. In indoor use alone, Bozeman’s gallons used per capita per day decreased from 82 in 2015 to 77 in 2016. “I would attribute, very much, the large majority of that reduction to rebates,” she says.
 

Loveland, Colo.: Energy efficiency

Loveland, Colo. residents can get free energy products and discounted electrical appliances installed through an Efficiency Works home energy auditBozeman fully operates its rebates program, and Ahlstrom says the program is easy to administer. But Loveland, Colo., (pop. 76,897) uses numerous partnerships to carry out its Efficiency Works energy rebates and incentives program, according to Lindsey Bashline, acting customer relations manager for Loveland Water & Power. Since 2014, four Colorado cities — Loveland, Longmont, Fort Collins and Estes Park — have offered Efficiency Works through an inter-governmental agreement with Platte River Power Authority (PRPA), a wholesale electricity generator that the four cities own.

Efficiency Works, which the four cities all fund, has offerings for both business and residential homes, Bashline says. Residents start the process by scheduling a $60 energy audit, which sends a contractor energy adviser to the home to inspect it and to get an idea of the resident’s energy efficiency goals. The adviser will also install smaller energy-saving products like LED bulbs and water-efficient showerheads free of charge.  

From there, the resident can choose either to buy qualifying energy-efficient appliances and systems a la carte or to buy streamlined packages of multiple items. With individual items, residents will choose contractors to provide and install the items, and they’ll receive a rebate check afterwards. With packages, the resident will pay an already-discounted price on the packages, and contractors will install the items. Efficiency Works as a whole has over 25 rebates available for residential customers, but each city offers different rebates. 

A home energy audit and rebate program was initially established in Loveland in 2010 after a city survey showed that customers not only wanted such a program, but were willing to pay 1 percent more in utility bills to have it in place, Bashline says.  

While it showed a spike in initial popularity, participation has leveled out over time. “We see a pretty consistent rate year-after-year,” Bashline says, noting that Loveland residents and businesses comprise about 20 percent of all of Efficiency Works’ customers. 

But the program has a few added benefits beyond strict energy savings, Bashline says. One is that participants in Efficiency Works are also more likely to hear about other programs Loveland Water & Power offers, Bashline says. Another benefit is that Efficiency Works’ administration model makes it easy for Loveland to operate, even without spikes in demand. 

In the partnership, the cities’ utilities collectively review technical standards and the customer experience through committees. The utilities individually coordinate marketing and outreach in their areas while handling their respective customers’ issues. PRPA and a host of contractors and sub-contractors handle the other aspects of the program’s implementation and management. The cities share the same contractors and sub-contractors for audits and most installs.

“I think [the program’s] successes have been the partnerships from working with our neighboring communities to offer a program,” she says, “and leveraging those partnerships to make our dollars go further, to collaborate.” 

The program has also improved city-homeowner relations in Loveland, such that the city can offer more comprehensive help to customer complaints, Bashline says. 

“Before, if somebody called in and they had a high bill complaint, we could do some coaching over the phone, but that’s really about as much as we could offer them,” she explains. “Now, we have much more that we can provide… we’re making sure they get what they pay for when they purchase this energy efficient equipment.”  

 

Redmond, Wash.: Commuting with fewer emissions

Commuting to work via vanpool is a way for Redmond, Wash. residents to be eligible for gift card drawings through the Go Redmond transportation program.Just as Loveland’s Efficiency Works program gives residents incentives towards using a variety of options for increasing their energy efficiency, so too does Redmond, Wash.’s Go Redmond program give residents monetary and transportation incentives for choosing a variety of commuting alternatives to driving alone, including biking, walking, riding buses, taking carpools or vanpools or telecommuting. 

The Go Redmond program’s goal is to address issues of air quality and congestion mitigation by reducing the number of trips made in single occupancy vehicles (SOVs), according to Go Redmond Program Administrator Caroline Chapman. Through its work with employers, the program also supports businesses affected by the 1991 Washington Commuter Trip Reduction Law, which requires certain employers to at least encourage their workers to lessen their solo driving commutes and reduce carbon emissions in the process. The program is funded through federal grants, a partnership with King County Metro and a portion of a local business tax.

Redmond (pop. 62,458) is an apt home for such a program. Not only does it have access to King County’s robust public transportation network, but being home to the headquarters of Microsoft and Nintendo of America, the city population approximately doubles each day during work hours, Chapman says. 

Go Redmond, which was started in 2008, is available for employers and individual residents to use. Individuals sign up for an account on Go Redmond’s website and log their daily non-SOV commutes on an online calendar. 

​Non-SOV trips qualify for certain incentives: New bus riders can get a free one-month bus pass, and vanpool participants can get a one-year, $50 per month vanpool subsidy as well, which Chapman says covers about half of a vanpool rider’s fare. It also has a tiered system of monthly drawings for Visa gift cards and Starbucks gift cards that increase in value with the more monthly non-drive-alone trips a participant takes.

The Go Redmond site also has rideshare matching functionality to help riders better plan their trips, Chapman says. This functionality is part of RideShareOnline, the backend software platform on which Go Redmond is built. The Washington State Department of Transportation manages RideShareOnline as a tool for ride matching services and trip planning tools for commuters in Washington and Oregon.  

In 2016, Go Redmond users reduced just over 8 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions and took about 1 million trips in non-single-occupancy vehicles that spanned 13 million miles, Chapman says.

Go Redmond isn’t just helping the city be more environmentally friendly — it’s also raising philanthropic efforts. Each year, Go Redmond offers a “Commute for a Cause” program that pledges to donate a multitude of bus passes to community organizations if community members surpass a community-wide non-SOV trip goal.

The 2017 Commute for a Cause occurred in February, and the city gave 7,500 bus trips to needy community members when the Go Redmond community beat the February goal of 50,000 trips by nearly 7,000 trips, per the Go Redmond website. In the process, nearly 24,000 gasoline gallons were saved and over 454,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions were reduced.

“We’ve seen a really great bump in participation and people logging their trips during Commute for a Cause,” Chapman says. “We think it might be because it is a guaranteed reward. It might not be going directly to the individual, but it’s not a drawing for a prize. It’s instead an altruistic reward.” 

While Go Redmond is run out of the city’s transportation demand management division, Chapman says the city sees air quality and congestion as “closely tied,” with Go Redmond being closely related to its climate action plan.

“The environmental aspect of it is definitely top-of-mind with the work that we do and what we’re trying to achieve,” Chapman says.
 

Hollywood, Fla. and Phoenix: Recycling

Like reducing vehicular emissions, recycling can have a profound effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions — the EPA notes that municipal solid waste recycling in 2006 eliminated almost 183 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Many cities across the U.S. are turning to the private sector — which Martin calls “a tremendous ally” — to aid them in recycling efforts. But some companies offer recycling solutions other than hauling services. 

One such company, Recyclebank, has partnered with over 300 communities since being founded in 2004, according to CEO Javier Flaim. 

In a nutshell, Recyclebank and companies like it give people points for recycling, which they can then use towards discounts at businesses.

“We exist to incentivize and educate residents to try to improve their recycling habits, to try to better the type of materials that they’re recycling and make sure they’re recycling correctly, and of course, ideally also reducing the amount of waste that a household throws away,” he says.

As part of a larger group of sustainability programs, Hollywood, Fla. (pop. 151,998) partnered with Recyclebank from 2010 until the contract expired in 2015, according to Hollywood Public Information Manager Joann Hussey.  A procurement policy required the city to bid for a new service at the contract’s end, and Recyclebank submitted again.

“Recyclebank is a great company… and we definitely liked them,” Hussey says. “[We] had a really good partnership.” 

Nevertheless, the city had experienced problems with Recyclebank’s technology, and a bid from a smaller company called Recycling Perks offered better technology, better pricing and services that better aligned with its citizenry at the time. Moreover, a three year Recyclebank contract with the city would have cost about $27,000 more than a three-year Recycling Perks contract. So Hollywood chose Recycling Perks and implemented its program in the city in September 2016.

In Hollywood’s implementation of Recycling Perks’ program, a city resident with a dedicated recycling can signs up with Recycling Perks online in order to participate. Each time a hauler collects waste from the resident’s recycling can, GPS locator technology notes it, and the resident’s account is credited with points, no matter how much material is in the can. 

The points can then be used towards discounts at national and local businesses or towards magazine subscriptions. 

When the city began its contract, it launched a public awareness campaign, and nearly 5,000 people signed up, Hussey says. Since the active campaign ended, the new customer participation rate has waned, although people are still signing up. Altogether, Hussey estimates the city’s recycling rate at 20 percent.

“We’re working on improving those numbers,” she says.

Hussey says that the program, grouped with Hollywood’s other sustainability programs, is an intangible benefit to the city in pursuing its green efforts and goals. But she admits that the program is a cost to the city, and that the city doesn’t make money offering the program.

“There’s more of a cost to offer this program,” she says. “So we can do the right thing here in Hollywood to encourage people to recycle, versus saving the money by putting all the stuff that could be recycled in the trash.”

Phoenix began a nearly $6 million, three-year contract with Recyclebank in January as part of a larger city goal to divert 40 percent of its waste by 2020, according to Phoenix Deputy Public Works Director for Solid Waste Services Brandie Barrett.

By the end of February, Phoenix had accumulated nearly 35,000 subscriptions and over 40,000 online logins in the program. At that time, 174 local businesses had also partnered with Recyclebank. By the end of May, the program had 37,189 participants, 66,269 logins and 210 local business partners.

Recyclebank’s program differs slightly from that of Recycling Perks. While residents can earn points for recycling, points can also be earned by interacting with online Recyclebank content, which educates people on recycling. Additionally, residents can share points with local charities and schools, or they can devote them towards planting trees.

The ability for residents to earn points just by educating themselves with content means anyone with a Phoenix IP address can participate in the program, even if they don’t use Phoenix’s solid waste services, Barrett says.

The contract’s benefits extend beyond just getting more residents to recycle, Barrett says. The company has actively promoted recycling education at community events throughout the city. Barrett also cites the company’s reward partnerships with local businesses as helping the economy.

“Participation of local businesses in this incentive program not only garners more interest in the rewards program and supports our waste diversion goals,” she says. “It also plays a really important role in connecting our residents to locally owned businesses and encourages them to support our local economy, which is something we care deeply about.” 

Programs like Recycling Perks and Recyclebank’s haven’t worked for all municipalities. 

A city news release shows that Atlanta began using Recycling Perks’ services in 2015, but an email from Will Anderson, communications manager of the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience, confirmed that the city had decided to abandon the service. “It’s as simple as we weren’t seeing the effects that we were hoping for,” Anderson writes.

A 2011 Recyclebank announcement shows that Cincinnati began using its services in October 2010, but a city news release shows the city ended the contract in 2013.  “Although the Recyclebank program worked for some residents, overall Recyclebank participation rates were disappointing,” the release notes. In both instances, Atlanta and Cincinnati affirmed that they would be revamping their recycling plans to better suit their needs and abilities. 

Responding to cities ending contracts with his company, Flaim notes that a major issue with changing behaviors is that it’s not an immediate action.

“To move a resident from not recycling an aluminum can to recycling an aluminum can, it takes time,” he says. “And admittedly, sometimes municipalities don’t necessarily have the benefit of a very, very long-term view on behavior change and behavioral science.”
 

The big picture: Federal stances won’t trump city initiatives

Flaim’s point of behavioral change taking time is one that Martin says applies to sustainability programs as a whole — that they should be viewed as paths towards long-term goals and not short-term fixes.

“These are systems-level changes that are taking place right now, and we didn’t get to the place we’re at right now in five years,” he says. “These are gradual processes that allow citizens to make a sustainable choice more easily. I think it’s absolutely crucial that we take a long-term approach to sustainability.”

Time however, might have recently taken on some additional weight across the country.

On June 1, President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the country from the Paris Agreement (or Paris Accord). The agreement, put forth by the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in 2015 and signed by 195 counties, lays out guidelines for countries to abide by in curbing greenhouse gas emissions as part of a global effort to combat climate change. 

The generation of electricity, emissions of petroleum-powered vehicles and the accumulation of waste —  which these incentive programs try to mitigate — can generate greenhouse gases, according to the EPA. 

On the same day after the announcement however, 68 mayors across the country committed to adopting and upholding the goals from the Paris Agreement, in a signed open letter posted on the online content platform Medium. By June 9, the list of signatory mayors jumped to 279.

“We will intensify efforts to meet each of our cities’ current climate goals, push for new action to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, and work together to create a 21st century clean energy economy,” the mayors write.

Having spoken to American City & County just an hour before the scheduled announcement, Martin’s beliefs on the move’s effect on cities parallel the mayors’ words. While Trump’s action won’t necessarily make cities’ sustainability ambitions any easier to achieve, it likely won’t necessarily eradicate those ambitions.

“We would prefer to have a willing federal partner through this process,” Martin says. 

“But it certainly isn’t going to cause any cities to withdraw their sustainability objectives.”


View an interactive map and chart of the greenest cities in the U.S. by clicking here.

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