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At your service in the Stratton Student Center: one Greenbean recycling machine

Zoe is the Greenbean recycling machine near the stairs on the first floor of W20. Part of a pilot program sponsored by the MIT Department of Facilities, Zoe is taking community recycling to the next level.
Photo: Jarrod Jones, MIT Department of Facilities

Can you guess who this is? A 2010 MassChallenge finalist, prone to crushes, into gaming and analytics, with a green consciousness and charitable leanings.

That would be Zoe. If you hang around the Student Center, you’ll get to know Zoe. She’s creating a few crushes of her own.

Zoe is the Greenbean recycling machine near the stairs on the first floor of W20. Part of a pilot program sponsored by the MIT Department of Facilities, Zoe is taking community recycling to the next level.

Let’s say you feed Zoe an aluminum soda can. She is smart enough to know several things:
  • That it’s aluminum, not plastic or glass. She’ll crush it and put in the aluminum bin in her interior and when that bin is full, she’ll notify Facilities.
  • Whether or not the can is eligible for a 5 cent refund. If it is, she’ll deposit that money in the account you’ve specified, whether it’s TechCash, PayPal, or a charity like the Nature Conservancy or education programs at the MIT Energy Initiative. If the container isn’t eligible for a refund through the Massachusetts Bottle Bill — for example, bottles for water, sports drinks and tea don’t qualify — Zoe will still take the container off your hands as long as she recognizes its Universal Product Code (UPC).
  • The energy benefit of recycling the container instead of tossing it in the trash. Those numbers are based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Individual Waste Reduction Model (iWarm). Zoe does her calculations in real time, so you can see your environmental impact immediately. If you’ve set it as a preference, she will even share on your Facebook page the number of containers you’ve saved from the landfill and your overall energy savings.
  • How well you’re measuring up against your peers. Whether you’re in a friendly competition with another student in your dorm or part of a team that’s challenging other teams in a monthly recycling competition, Zoe keeps tabs in real time and let’s you check the stats at
To use Zoe and take advantage of her analytics, gaming, social media options, and ability to transfer funds, sign up with Greenbean using your phone number as your login ID. Zoe has a computer screen that lets community members register on the spot or you can sign up online.

How it all began

For Greenbean founder Shanker Sahai, it was frustration that led to inspiration. He’s been an avid recycler for years. One day he carted his recyclables to a local grocery store and waited in line for his turn at the store’s recycling machines. Then there was a second line to cash in the deposit receipts. Sahai didn’t want to wait again, so he stowed the receipts in his pants pocket. The pants ended up in the laundry and all Sahai had to show for his recycling efforts was a soggy wad of paper.

“Why can’t I just get my money back at the machine?” he fumed. “How hard can that be?” And so the idea for Greenbean was born.

While investigating options, Sahai learned a lot about recycling and has put that knowledge to good use. For example, Zoe has a soft shoot with a spring-loaded platform for glass bottles. They land unbroken in a separate bin, ensuring that glass fines don’t get embedded in plastic containers.

In fact, Greenbean machines sort each material — glass, plastic and aluminum — separately. Since there’s no cross contamination, all of the containers can go straight to a baling facility. This saves energy in two ways: the energy used to haul materials to a sorting facility and the energy used for sorting itself. And because Greenbean’s presorted materials are clean, they’re worth more to manufacturers. Last but not least, Greenbean machines track the number of containers delivered, simplifying the accounting between the beverage distributors who pick up the containers and recycling facilities.

Zoe’s debut

Behind the scenes at MIT, many individuals and groups worked with Sahai to get the pilot program up and running. Alix De Monts and other members of the Undergraduate Association Committee on Sustainability gave advice on implementing Greenbean on campus and integrating the machines with TechCash. Jarrod Jones, of the Department of Facilities, and Mike Foley, of the Campus Activities Complex, planned logistics around Zoe’s siting and related recycling efforts.

Zoe took up residence in W20 near the end of July. Since then, more than 10,000 containers have been recycled.

Looking ahead

Sahai has big plans for his recycling machines; right now, those plans center around colleges and universities. “Today’s students are the generation that’s going to change how we recycle, they’re the ones who want to see their impact in real time.”

Greenbean will soon install a machine at Tufts and other universities in the area, as well as on campuses as far off as California. Sahai wants to encourage friendly competition between colleges, similar to the RecycleMania competition held each spring. He hopes to coordinate challenges each month. And if benefactors want to encourage recycling by offering prizes (Red Sox tickets, anyone?) so much the better.

Sahai also hopes the Greenbean machines will help modernize bottle bills, ending the era of paper receipts and enabling users to choose where they want to direct their refunds.
And don’t forget to say hello to Zoe next time you’re in W20.

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