Recycling hits an entrepreneurial nerve

(First published in the August 22, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Michelle Goetsch started the ERbin app with the idea of helping people know exactly what and what not to put into the recycling bin


Michelle Goetsch shows off the app she founded, ERbin, which aims to dispel confusion around what exactly you’re supposed to put in your recycling bin.

It was around Christmas 2017 when Michelle Goetsch became really frustrated by a common problem: knowing what exactly can be recycled. The answer depends on where you live,  what refuse handler your municipality uses, and which regional facility is handling the recyclable materials. Plus, specific items can change depending on the markets.

In short, what a person knew a few years ago might be out of date. Even the plastic recycling number can be misleading. For example, a “1” on a water bottle is not exactly the same plastic as the “1”-stamped produce clamshell (for berries, greens, etc.), which isn’t as universally recyclable.

“All this material is going to different places,” Goetsch says. “And that dictates what goes into recycling bins. That info is constantly changing and there needs to be a way to communicate that to residents.”

Enter ERbin, an app founded by Goetsch, of Kronenwetter, with the aim of allowing you to scan barcodes and telling you whether or not the container is recyclable in your community.

For consumers this sounds simple. But for Goetsch and her team, setting up such an app is immensely challenging. Millions of consumer goods somehow must be entered into the app, and then compared to a local municipality’s recycling policy.

Early on, Goetsch and her team entered around 5,000 products into the database— not nearly enough to be useful. Soon, Goetsch found more efficient methods, and is now working with a data science expert at UW-Stevens Point to speed up the process.

In these early stages, ERbin can focus on products available in central Wisconsin where the app is debuting. This area doesn’t have Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, so products specific to those stores can wait until the app expands.

In March, the village of Weston agreed to be the first municipality to beta test the app. Residents made more than 700 scans, and to promote participation Goetsch donated 50¢ per scan ($358 total), to Recycling Connection and Weston Elementary. ERbin is being used by the city of Madison for its new curbside food waste collection, to help residents and volunteers navigate the program. And Goetsch will be working with UWSP and Edgewood College in Madison to implement the app on those campuses.

Wausau last week approved a recycling audit to check residents’ recycling habits and participation, and the ERbin app will be a part of that process. According to terms included in city documents, city staff, ERbin, and Harter’s (the city’s refuse hauling contractor), will conduct these audits in five Wausau neighbors. Their findings could lead to potential savings, and set the stage for future implementation of the app in Wausau.

Anyone can download the ERbin app, but until a municipality participates, you can’t see what is or is not recyclable in your community. At this point, Weston, Madison and Edgewood College are the only options for the app; UWSP and possibly Wausau are coming soon.

Goetsch says her plan is to start ERbin locally, and expand to eventually serve communities across the U.S. Meanwhile, she’s still an adjunct faculty with UWSP and does some work for UW-Green Bay. “I’ve always been a person that asks, Why do we do this the way we do?” Goetsch says. “If I don’t get an answer, or the answer doesn’t make sense, I feel a responsibility to find a solution.”