Last year, Americans used and discarded about 50 billion plastic water bottles. The recycling rate on those bottles is about 23%, meaning that roughly 38 billion plastic water bottles were dumped into landfills or ended up as general litter.
In the face of this growing problem, Elkay Corporation, a U.S company best-known for drinking fountains, developed the EZH2O fountain, which doubled as a water bottle filling station. This allows people to reuse their own refillable bottles, thus cutting down on waste.
As a savvy company, Elkay saw an opportunity to make money and be a little greener at the same time. The big question their engineers had was, will people actually change their habits and take advantage of the eco-friendly option?
When the engineers finished their filling station design, they decided to add a counter to show consumers how many bottles were being saved with each use. Once the full expense of research and development are factored in, it's not uncommon for prototype models to scale back from the original concept. "At one point, we almost cut the counter from the specification due to cost," Franco Savoni, VP of Product Marketing and Engineering at Elkay told me.
But here's what happened: in college dormitories across the U.S. where the EZH2O was installed, students got really excited about the bottle counters. They could instantly see a tangible result each time they refilled their own bottle—and they could watch those results stack up.
It took almost no effort, saved them a few bucks a bottle, and provided instant gratification that they were doing something good for society and the planet. Watching the bottle counter turn over each time meant they were, in effect, getting gold stars—small, constant, emotionally satisfying dopamine reinforcers.
To up that reward factor, students at both University of Michigan and University of Minnesota even organize contests: which dorm floor can save the most bottles and get that counter the highest?
As of this writing, Savoni reports that Elkay has delivered "in excess of 100,000 EZH2O units." You can find them at gyms, in airports, and of course, in college campuses.
[Editor's note: it probably bears mentioning that Robb Best is currently employed by Elkay as Senior Advisor for Cognitive Strategy.]