Phone apps establish foothold in waste industry
Apps that run on smartphones are the latest way for city recycling departments, haulers and others to communicate with citizens about schedules, drop off locations, tips for hard-to-recycle items and other matters. George Dreckmann, recycling coordinator for the city of Madison, Wisconsin, said the ‘my-waste’ app they’ve been supplying free to customers for the past year puts virtually all the information from the recycling department website into a cell phone that fits in residents’ pockets.
Dreckmann was concerned that the city’s existing print publications and website weren’t getting information to an important segment of users. “We were looking for a way to extend our reach into the very mobile portion of our population, the students and some of the younger professionals who are regularly on the move,” Dreckmann said. At $2,700 for initial setup and $3,000 per year in subscription fees, the cost of the app also fit with Dreckmann’s reduced marketing budget.
Madison’s app is one of a handful of similar products that have hit the market in the last couple of years. So far smartphone apps have made incremental rather than revolutionary changes to the way solid waste managers communicate with consumers. But it’s early yet and, according to Barbara McConnell, spokesperson for Toronto-based RecyclingCalendars.com that produces the my-waste app, waste managers everywhere are going to eventually want ways to work with fast-growing mobile technology.
“It really is the way of the future,” McConnell said of mobile technology. “And municipalities and haulers have come to understand that if they want to communicate effectively with residents, they have to start looking at what mobile technology is offering to them.”
Recyclers that are adopting mobile apps today are well ahead of the curve. A large minority of people don’t have the smartphones needed to run the apps, noted David Eaves, vice president of business development for Recollect, a Vancouver company that sells a recycling app of the same name. Also, because different apps must be programmed for each of several varieties of smartphone software systems, many of the smartphones in customers’ hands won’t run any given app. And most of those who could use the apps probably never will.
“If you’re doing it as a way to communicate with residents, it’s not a particularly comprehensive solution,” Eaves said. “That’s because the number of people who are going to download your app is infinitesimally small.”
Dreckmann said about 2,500 people have downloaded Madison’s app. He’s hoping to get that to 10 percent, about 20,000, of the city’s 220,000 population in a couple of years. McConnell said that’s a possibility, based on her company’s experience of getting up to 15 percent of customers in some cities to download the apps in the first year.
Apps put the equivalent of a reference book on recycling into customers’ hands, where they can access it 24 hours a day from anywhere. In addition to collection schedules and info on recycling specific items, they can tell users about special collections for things such as appliances and electronics, as well as other aspects of a solid waste management program.
One of the concrete benefits early users report is a reduced burden on customer service departments. Users of RecyclingCalendars.com’s my-waste’app such as Mercer County, New Jersey, have reported fewer calls to help lines since deploying the app.
A special feature of apps is that they can potentially provide insight into customers’ behavior and needs. “Apps aren’t just a one-way stream of information from a source to a user,” notes Corey Lambrecht, president and COO of Earth911 of Scottsdale, Arizona, which provides an app called iRecycle. “They also provide data back to the app owners on how that information is being accessed and used.” App owners can look at what kinds of recycling questions customers are searching for and use that as a way to fine-tune apps and services,” he said.
Apps work well when addressing specialized questions, Lambrecht said. “The iRecycle smartphone app is largely beneficial to municipalities to promote recycling opportunities for materials they do not accept,” he said. For instance, one county recycling agency promotes iRecycle in its construction recycling directory, he said.
A special challenge for recycling app users now is coming up with effective ways to market the apps to customers. “Unless they tell residents the app is there and they can download it to their smartphones, it’s a moot point,” McConnell said. “Promoting is a very important part of this process.” RecyclingCalendars.com provides municipalities with mailers and other materials to promote their my-waste apps.
Recycling app users also have to find ways to integrate their apps with their organization’s overall information technology plan. Many cities are struggling with the question of whether to have a single app that covers all city functions or to have separate apps for each department, Eaves said. Apps like ‘my-waste’ and Recollect are customizable with city and department logos, but providing information about all of a city’s services and programs is more complicated. McConnell said RecyclingCalendars.com is working on a whole city app capable of serving up information from the full range of municipal services but has yet to offer it for sale.
The future will certainly bring more apps and more features. The Environmental Protection Agency lists several recycling-oriented apps among nearly 200 on its “My Green Apps” website. McConnell said later this year they hope to roll out a capability that will send an alert to users’ phones in real-time when the collection truck is approaching their neighborhood.
Meanwhile, recycling officials like Dreckmann will continue making their department websites more mobile-friendly and otherwise trying to accommodate the boom in mobile technology. This approach, integrating smartphone apps into an increasingly electronic communication plan, is probably the way of the future, Eaves said.
“It’s hard to imagine that the app alone will become dominant,” he said. “What will become important is digital in general. For instance, the number of cities that are doing paper collection calendars in five years is going to drop precipitously.”
Lambrecht concurs. “Apps are just one part of the solutions we are developing to help municipalities to meet their landfill diversion goals and communicate with residents about how they can make low impact lifestyles a household norm. Mobile is a fast moving realm for the type of recycling intelligence that Earth911 deploys and we have just scratched the surface of mobile technology to improve on the customer experience.”
Dreckmann anticipates seeing more capabilities as more players enter the recycling app game. “We have to see just how exactly these app-based systems are going to work out,” he said. “But the future is good for information-based systems like this.”