Julie Kneuker has one recycling cart that’s emptied once a week.
Yet, in the past four months, the Augusta resident has been rewarded by a citywide program for recycling as many as four times in one day, even when she hasn’t wheeled her bin to the curb.
On May 2, Recycling Perks, a nationwide program Augusta hired two years ago to improve its 4 percent recycling rate, awarded her 50 points toward discounts at local retailers.
The next week she received 100 points, when only 25 are supposed to be credited weekly to residents.
“The program is inconsistent and there’s no rhyme or reason to the process,” said Kneuker, who joined the program in September after a friend liked it on Facebook. “It’s definitely not worth the trouble.”
The mismanagement of Kneuker’s account is not an isolated episode. The Augusta Chronicle found that the Virginia-based company that runs the city’s Recycling Perks program has been inflating household participation, awarding unearned discounts that have to be honored at local businesses. The city pays $770 a month for the system.
For four months, the newspaper tracked Kneuker’s account and three others. It discovered that double, triple and even quadruple participation points were awarded weekly from April through June.
The multiplied totals stopped when Recycling Perks switched to a new mobile Web site July 1; however, accounts were still awarded 25 participation points on weeks when residents did not put out their bins for Augusta garbage crews to empty.
“Yes, we do occasionally add points when collection does not occur,” Lori Videtto, the deputy director of Augusta Environmental Services, acknowledged last week in response to the findings.
In an e-mail, Videtto said the system revolves around the ability to know when a recycling can is presented for pickup and being able to track that collection.
“If the system has a hiccup, data is unavailable or corrupted, or we have made an internal process change, we will err on the side of the customer and add points,” she said.
Amelia Baker, the vice president of Recycling Perks operations, said such a “hiccup” occurred when the company unveiled its new Web site, which lets members shop for discounts on mobile devices and redeem coupons in stores “on the go.”
“We awarded all residents points for a few weeks during that transition period just to err on the side of the customer and assure the new Web site was functioning properly, because we believe very strongly in serving members of the community,” she said.
Some local businesses that honor the Perks coupons said they were disappointed to hear the program was handing out undeserved points, which leads to undeserved discounts and doesn’t strengthen the city’s recyling efforts.
“That doesn’t seem fair,” said Neal Patel, who has accepted at least a half-dozen Perks coupons in the past two weeks for free beverages and sandwiches at Which Wich, the Wheeler Road deli he manages. “You should get what you earn.”
Ben Pung, the general manager of Battery Warehouse on Deans Bridge Road, agreed.
“If residents are not actually recycling, it’s not a good deal for us,” said Pung, whose business has honored Perks coupons for free flashlights and alkaline batteries.
After The Chronicle alerted Augusta Commission members, at least two contacted city Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson.
Johnson said that when carts are dumped, they’re scanned to reward points, but during the transition to a new Web site a broken feed between the city’s and Recycling Perks’ systems resulted in points occasionally being added to accounts when collection did not occur.
City records show that “sensor issues” with recycling trucks in March and July led to the vehicles “reporting too many lifts.”
“I want to make sure we have a program that effectively gets more people enrolled in recycling to extend the life of our landfill,” said District 7 Commissioner Donnie Smith, whose area was affected by Perks’ issues. “If there’s some form of fraud or mismanagement, I want it to be brought forward and somebody tell me how we can fix it.”
Johnson said there are still a few quirks because of “human error” with recycling truck drivers not uploading routes properly or residents grabbing their neighbor’s carts by accident, but that his staff has worked diligently to correct the issues.
Videtto said the city is satisfied overall with Recycling Perks as a partner and appreciates its efforts to promote recycling in Augusta. Since the program was introduced in Augusta in 2012, nearly 2,200 people and 65 local businesses have joined and the city’s recycled weight has increased by more than 1,100 tons.
“The Perks program is two-fold – customers and partners,” she said. “The partners offer the rewards and the customers use them. If one side slips, it affects the other, and we want our customers to keep recycling and use their coupons, especially at local businesses.”
Baker said the company has set individual goals with the city and that Augusta has made progress toward accomplishing each – increasing weekly recycling participation, educating residents on acceptable recyclables and promoting small business.
She said the program, which is offered in nine cities, has very few businesses that withdraw, and if they do, it’s because they have exhausted a product or service.
“It is an evolving program, and as we identify areas of challenge and improvement with the city, we will work with our customers and partners to keep the program running well for everyone involved,” Baker said.