As the world attempts to reduce its carbon emissions and improve recycling rates, we’re increasingly looking towards technological innovations to help us develop more circular economies. From sophisticated waste tracking through improved recycling facilities to more sustainable products and materials, every stage of the business and consumer journey can be enhanced and streamlined. 

One such method that is increasingly gaining traction in the US is the introduction of reverse vending machines, or RVM systems as they are otherwise known. But what exactly is an RVM and how do they work? This article will look at these innovative machines and explain how they can improve our recycling rates. Read on to learn more.


What Is a Reverse Vending Machine?

A reverse vending machine, often known simply as an RVM, is a specialized device designed to automate the process of collecting and recycling waste, most commonly used beverage containers such as plastic bottles, glass bottles, and aluminum cans. They work to increase recycling rates by providing convenient and accessible deposit return systems that deliver incentives to consumers, helping to reduce glass, metal and plastic waste. 

While today there are a variety of different types in use, they generally work in similar ways, identifying, sorting, and sometimes cleaning used items which are then sent to recycling facilities. Below, we explore how RVMs work in more detail.


How Does a Reverse Vending Machine Work?

Working behind the scenes, reverse vending machines are a blend of cutting-edge technology and innovative engineering that aim to boost recycling rates through incentivisation. They do this by accepting, identifying, and sorting different types of waste and then rewarding or reimbursing the consumer for depositing them. 


  1. Consumers insert used containers into the designated slot upon approaching the machine.
  2. The machine works using sensors to identify and validate the material, ensuring it meets recycling criteria. This may be done using AI technology or simply by scanning the UPC code or barcode.
  3. Once verified, the machine cleans and sorts the material, separating types like plastic, glass, and metal. This ensures clean and sorted materials that minimize contamination.
  4. Sorted materials are compressed or compacted for efficient storage and transportation to maximize efficiency and reduce collection frequency.
  5. Compacted materials are stored within the machine until it reaches full capacity or scheduled for collection.
  6. Users receive an incentive as a reward for their contribution to recycling efforts. This may be in the form of monetary refunds, coupons, or tokens for redemption at participating stores.


Finally, the overall aim of RVMs is to boost recycling rates by creating a positive experience for the end user and rewarding them for these good habits. This incentive-based system not only encourages recycling but also creates a feedback loop for users, reinforcing the importance of recycling and creating a positive impact.


Reverse Vending Machines Make Recycling Fun

If you’ve already read our plastic bottle recycling facts then you’ll know that recycling in the US remains a problematic issue, with rates for municipal solid waste (MSW) stalling at just over 30% since 2005. In contrast, recycling rates in Germany, are just over 70%—where RVMs have been a fixture of grocery stores and other businesses since 2003.

So, with the successful implementation of RVMs in multiple countries showing the US the way forward, how exactly do they boost recycling rates and what other benefits can they bring? Below, we look at these questions in more detail.


  • Incentivized Recycling Incentive-based systems where users receive rewards for recycling are a core function of RVMs. This includes incentives such as monetary refunds, coupons, or tokens that can be redeemed at participating stores or online, creating a positive feedback loop that reinforces the habit of recycling. However, the incentives also stretch to the business offering RVM can or bottle recycling, with sustainability-aware consumers more likely to return to the store hosting the RVM.  


  • Engaging User Experience — RVMs make recycling interactive and engaging, allowing consumers to actively participate in the process of physically inserting products into the machine rather than just throwing them into single-stream recycling bins, or worse still, the trash. This hands-on approach fosters a sense of involvement and responsibility towards the environment by encouraging individuals to be more mindful of their recycling habits and the impact of their actions on the planet. This increased awareness often leads to better recycling practices and a reduction in waste.


  • Education and Awareness — The role played by RVMs as educational tools, especially for children and young adults, should not be understated, since not only do they provide a tangible and visual representation of the recycling process, but they also reinforce and demonstrate good recycling habits. For example, if children witness the regular use of RVMs on weekly shopping trips, they are more likely to practice these habits when adults.


  • Efficient Material Sorting RVMs utilize advanced technology to identify and validate materials, clean and sort the items, and separating them into different types such as plastic, glass, and metal. This ensures that the recycling process begins with clean and sorted materials, minimizing contamination down the line.


  • Reduced Contamination in Recycling Streams Efficient sorting also ensures that the materials collected are of higher quality and less likely to be contaminated. This improves the overall recycling process and leads to higher quality recycled materials.


  • Convenience and Accessibility RVMs are often conveniently located in high-traffic areas, making it easy for individuals to participate in recycling efforts. This accessibility, in shopping malls, supermarkets and grocery stores, and even at the Super Bowl for example, encourages more people to recycle and contributes to higher recycling rates.


  • Environmental Impact By diverting a significant volume of waste away from landfill and incineration, RVMs play a crucial role in reducing environmental degradation caused by improper disposal of recyclable materials.


  • Job Creation — The implementation and maintenance of RVMs creates employment opportunities in areas such as machine servicing, material handling, and recycling plant operations. This not only benefits the environment, with more jobs contributing to a circular economy, but also contributes to the local economy.


  • Encouraging Innovation and Technological Advancements — The development and deployment of RVMs highlight the way technology and environmental consciousness can encourage sustainable innovation and tech advancements. Continued research and innovation in this field promise even more efficient and sustainable recycling solutions in the future.


What Happens to A Bottle or Can When It Is Recycled

When a bottle or can enters the recycling stream, it undergoes several stages that ultimately transform it into raw materials for manufacturing various products. The metal, glass, and plastic recycling process are all similar, with a few variations dependent on the material. Below we look at the process in more detail.


1. Collection and Transportation

After being deposited into a recycling bin, the bottles and cans are collected by recycling trucks and transported to recycling facilities.


2. Sorting and Cleaning

  • At the facility, the recyclables are sorted based on material type using a combination of manual labor and automated processes. Magnets and conveyor belts may be used to separate metals from non-metals.
  • Once sorted, the items go through a cleaning process to remove any contaminants, such as labels, caps, and residual liquids.


3. Shredding and Crushing

Bottles and cans are then mechanically shredded or sent to a crusher to reduce the size of the materials and increase storage capacity. This increases surface area and aids in the subsequent processing steps.


4. Melting or Molding

  • For metal cans, the crushed pieces are typically melted down in a furnace. This molten metal can then be molded into new products.
  • For plastic bottles, the pieces are melted and reformed into small pellets. These pellets serve as raw material for the production of a wide range of plastic items.
  • For glass, items are crushed and melted down.


5. Refining and Purification

In some cases, especially with metals, there may be additional refining processes to remove impurities and achieve the desired quality for manufacturing.


6. Manufacturing New Products

The refined materials are then sent to manufacturers. They use these recycled materials as feedstock to produce new bottles, cans, or other products.


7. Distribution and Sale

The newly manufactured products are distributed to retailers, where consumers can purchase them.


8. Reuse and Recycling Cycle Continues

When consumers finish using these newly manufactured bottles or cans, the cycle can repeat. They can be recycled again and used to create even more products.



The rise of RVMs across the US is perhaps unsurprising given the challenges currently faced by the waste management industry, and their success in other counties can be a real-world example of how they might boost recycling rates. In addition, as the technology develops, it’s likely that smart reverse vending machines will become more advanced, further boosting the number of products that can be recycled, while simultaneously streamlining collection, sorting, cleaning, and diversion of materials.

Finally, as a tangible way to engage individuals in the recycling process, positive feedback loops that foster a culture of environmental responsibility can change attitudes and perspectives towards disposable mindsets—helping to create a more sustainable world for us all.

For more information on RVMs, a deeper look into our Cycle technology, and advice on how your business can improve its sustainability metrics, contact RTS and explore the blog today.

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