iREC - Innovating Recycling
City/Region : Cascais , Portugal

The iREC project piloted an incentive-based system for the recovery of single-use beverage packaging. The installation of 15 Reverse Vending Machines (RVMs) in Cascais allowed consumers to earn rewards for returning containers made of glass, PET and metal (cans). The project involved key stakeholders in the supply chain, including retailers and recyclers, as well as an academic partner. The conclusions and lessons learned from iREC contribute toward the design of the beverage container deposit return system (DRS) that will soon become mandatory in Portugal, as a result of the transposition of an EU directive into national law.

EU Green Deal Policy Areas Addressed
Sustainable industry
Pathways followed
  • Involve citizens through participatory implementation
  • Pursue a shift towards a circular economy
  • Wisely select and apply smart technologies
On-location awareness efforts to demostrate the use of RVMs and stimulate participation

Cascais (pop. 206K) is a coastal municipality and part of the Lisbon Metropolitan Area. Our commitment to climate action (SDG 13) led to the adoption of the Action Plan for Climate Change Adaptation and the Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality 2050, which recognise the importance of involving all of society in these transformations.

While the EU Waste Framework Directive sets a target of reuse and recycling of 60% of urban waste by 2030, Portugal remains far from this goal, with a recycling rate of only 19%. The financial unsustainability of the packaging waste management system prevents effective investment in selective collection, as it penalises those who recycle most.

Our Transformative Action is driven by a recognition that all actors in the supply chain need to be engaged if we are to realise the transition toward a circular economy, via the adoption of more sustainable consumption and production patterns and practices.

In Action
Conference on DRS at Nova SBE in (May22)

The iREC project was an innovative pilot developed by Cascais in partnership with Nova School of Business and Economics, that mobilised consumers and retailers to participate in the return and recovery of single-use beverage packaging. The project, co-financed by the EEA Grants Financial Mechanism and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Action, had a duration of 22 months (Sept21- June22) and an overall budget of 856,405€.

Six large retail chains provided access to commercial floor space for the installation of 15 Reverse Vending Machines (RVMs) in 12 supermarkets in Cascais, in addition to the municipal market. Store personnel received training in the use and operation of the RVMs, however maintenance was carried out by the environmental services municipal corporation of Cascais (EMAC). This collaboration agreement was formalised via Letters of Support from the companies involved.

A team of 3 staff members was deployed full time, 7 days per week, for the maintenance, cleaning, and emptying of the RVMs, thanks to a real-time SMS alert system that allowed them to respond quickly to service interruptions and keep track of deposits. The team was also responsible for the collection and transport of returned bottles and cans to the materials recovery facility, Tratolixo, where loads were weighed, baled, stored and sent to recyclers for recovery.

Successful integration with the Citypoints Cascais mobile app enabled the delivery of incentives to RVM users. For each RVM usage, a receipt was issued with a bar code that conferred points which could be exchanged for rewards on the app. These included 32 goods and services related to sustainable consumption, acquired primarily from local and domestic suppliers (e.g. reusable straws, rPET swimwear, vouchers at a local bulk foods store).

Finally, through the partnership with Nova SBE, a series of online and in-person surveys were carried out to gain insight on the characteristics, motivations, and preferences of users and non-users. The research also summarised some of the project’s contributions, as well as the challenges encountered.

According to Luís Almeida Capão, President of EMAC“Urban waste management needs to incorporate strategies to stimulate citizen engagement. iREC is a good example of how technology can be a tool for increasing public participation: in only 1 year, we collected 1 million beverage containers. Gamification is a key component of this success. Through iREC, we are gathering valuable experience on the ground and preparing ourselves for the rollout of the national DRS.”


As one of several projects funded by EEA Grants Portugal as part of Call#1 - Deposit refund system for beverage bottles and cans, iREC team members were engaged in consultations hosted by the Secretary General for the Environment and Climate Action, regarding the challenges and lessons learned from the implementation of the return scheme from a municipal perspective. These inputs will feed into the design of relevant policies at multiple levels for the efficient management of waste, including the future deposit return system in Portugal, with a view to lowering the carbon footprint of waste and achieving national and EU recycling goals.

In February 2021, with Covid-19 restrictions still in place, the project held a series of webinars highlighting the work of Portuguese NGOs and citizen initiatives on waste reduction and recycling, thus lending visibility to civil society advocates for the incorporation of circular economy approaches at the household, industry, and policy levels. The project was also featured as a successful case study at a symposium on DRS organized by NGOs Zero Waste Lab and WWF Portugal.

Finally, key findings and lessons learned of the project were presented at a conference held in May 2022, which brought together stakeholders to discuss challenges and opportunities related to the upcoming DRS. Among those present were industry associations and representatives from the retail, packaging and waste management sectors, officials from the Ministry for the Environment and Climate Change and the Portuguese Environment Agency, as well as representatives of municipalities from across the country.

User deposits a bottle into the RVM at Cascais Municipal Market

Project results were tracked monthly, summarised in quarterly reports to the financing entity, and made available on the project website.

In addition to results already discussed, the project also carried out an intensive promotion and communication campaign, including a traveling exhibition, with the aim of stimulating public participation, raising awareness about container DRS and circular economy approaches.

Key results of the iREC project include:

  • 6 retail partners engaged (Lidl, Sonae, Jeronimo Martins, Intermarché, E.Leclerc and Auchan)
  • 15 Reverse Vending Machines set up in 13 locations
  • 5 jobs created (2 female, 3 male)
  • 1.381.525 containers collected and sent for recycling
  • 120 tonnes of material collected and sent for recycling (PET, glass and metal)
  • 147.064 RVM usages registered
  • 1.978.266 Citypoints awarded for the return of beverage packaging
  • 8.848 rewards claimed through the Citypoints app
  • 3 research outputs produced
  • 85 media articles or news pieces published
  • 7.869 interactions on social media (likes, shares, comments)
  • 2.065 monthly average website views
  • 3 online webinars on circular economy with grassroots organisations held
  • 1 traveling exhibition held
  • 1 conference held
  • 1 academic piece sent for publication (pending approval)

The main impact of this action resides in its ability to mobilise key actors in the implementation of a bottle and can return system. Collection of beverage packaging using RVMs prevents contamination and thus guarantees high quality material for various industry applications, including transformation into new food packaging. iREC thus contributed toward the circularity of the beverage sector, while acting as catalyst for further efforts to reduce the use of virgin materials and production of wastes from single-use packaging.

By engaging retail giants, recyclers, and members of the public in the recovery of materials from non-renewable sources (glass, PET and metal), carrying out extensive communication efforts on the benefits and relevance of circular economy approaches, and disseminating project results to a wide audience, the iREC project has contributed to greater understanding of and receptivity toward DRS in Cascais and beyond. In that sense, it lays an important foundation for the upcoming scheme, which will undoubtedly require important adjustments and investment from actors along the supply chain.

This impact is hard to quantify, but there is some evidence thanks to the data collection efforts conducted involving consumers. According to the survey of iREC particpants, 13% of regular RVM users stated that they do not separate waste at home, yet they were drawn to iREC due to its incentive-based nature. Another interesting finding is that roughly 25% of iREC users did not avail themselves of the rewards loaded onto the CityPoints application. The motivation of this group of users originated in environmental concerns and a desire to participate in innovative sustainability practices.

These results suggest that iREC may have contributed positively to changing and reinforcing environmentally responsible behaviors and consumption habits among consumers in Cascais, thereby setting the stage for successful rollout of the DRS locally.

Challenges and lessons learned
iREC traveling exhibition (Oct-Dec21) featured a sculpture made of recovered containers, info panels

The following challenges and lessons were summarised in reports to the financing entity and research outputs:

  • High rate of rejection initially due to absence of a national database of containers
  • Collection of glass containers cumbersome and costly due to weight and breakage
  • Cans only 11% of containers collected, did not justify dedicated bin in RVMs
  • RVMs located in storefronts more effective than in parking areas and basements
  • Lack of knowledge about the project often stated as a reason for non-participation, need for even greater communication efforts
  • Centralised managing entity a must to coordinate all actors


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