Cleveland to Require Trash-bin RFIDs to Enforce Recycling

Published September 16, 2010

In 2009, after four years of controversial and piecemeal policies intended to enforce recycling, the government of the United Kingdom imposed a complex and compulsory system of garbage-sorting on homeowners.
Citing the British model, Cleveland, Ohio is taking a giant step toward a similar scheme of compulsory recycling. In 2011 some 25,000 households will be required to use recycling bins fitted with radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs)—tiny computer chips that can remotely provide information such as the weight of the bin’s contents and that allow passing garbage trucks to verify their presence.
If a household does not put its recycle bin out on the curb, an inspector would be able to check its garbage for improperly discarded recyclables and fine the scofflaws $100. In addition, if a bin is put out in a tardy manner or left out too long, the household could be fined. Cleveland plans to implement the system citywide within six years.
Such extreme recycling programs are nothing new, even in American cities. In San Francisco, recycling and composting are mandatory; residents are required to sort trash into three different bins, and compliance is enforced through fines.
Hoping for New Revenues
Neither are RFID bins new. They were introduced on London streets in 2005 ostensibly to track the amount of trash households produced and to discourage “overproduction,” and they have had trial runs in American cities. Earlier this year Alexandria,Virginia approved a mandate for such bins, which are expected to be placed with households this autumn.
Cleveland is particularly important, however, because of its size. Cash-starved local governments will be watching to see if an American city as big as Cleveland can use RFID bins to increase revenues. The revenues would flow from three basic sources: A trash-collection fee that could be increased, as in Alexandria; the imposition of fines; and the profit, if any, from selling recyclables.
The latter source should not be dismissed. Recycling programs are not generally cost-efficient, but much of the reason is that collections need to be cleaned and re-sorted at their destination. If households can be forced to assume these labor-intensive tasks, selling recyclables is more likely to be profitable, especially such goods as aluminum cans.
Rubbish Police
An estimated 2.6 million Britons now have RFID bins monitoring how and when they sort garbage from recyclables. Implementation varies from borough to borough because trash collection is under local jurisdiction, as in the United States. But the basics of the scheme are the same, with fines for noncompliance ranging up to £1,000 (more than $1,500).
Councils routinely employ “rubbish police” who fine households for offenses such as producing “excessive” trash. For example, Oxford employs “waste education officers” who go through household bins and instruct the owners on proper sorting and disposal. The officers also fine residents £80 if the trash overflows the 240-litre bin, which is emptied fortnightly. This makes disposal of trash from a large party or other events such as Christmas problematic.
The policing of trash bins is also enforced by surveillance cameras. This practice became evident in a recent controversy when a Coventry woman was captured on video throwing a cat in a trash bin.
Five Types of Bins Required
The British system also mandates how trash is to be sorted. The UK Web site Green Launches explained:
“The next time you dump your garbage in a bin, make sure you have it sorted well and dropped in the correct bin. Or else, you’ll probably burn a 1,000 fine in your pocket. Household waste like food scraps, tea bags etc in the wrong bin will have the family penalized. This forces families to use up to five different types of bins for waste separation and encourages picking up of recyclable products. This will also include the compulsory use of slop buckets to get rid of food waste.”
Cleveland is not suggesting such an elaborate division of trash. But neither did Britain initially. Government control tends to expand if the policies being imposed raise revenue.
Money a Driving Factor
Green Launches continued, “Environment secretary, Hilary Benn came up with this idea that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These strict and hefty rules are sure to raise a cry amongst taxpayers and residents. But these rules will also help increase the production and use of greener energy resources and at the same time, decrease those mounting piles in landfills.”
Cleveland parts company with its British counterparts and makes it abundantly clear that money is a driving factor. City waste-collection commissioner Ronnie Owens, who perhaps remembers the municipal bankruptcy of the 1980s, says, “The Division of Waste Collection is on track to meet its goal of issuing 4,000 citations this year.”
Bloggers have widely speculated the recycling scheme is an excuse to create noncompliance and thus maximize the payment of fines.
“Garbage police in Britain and Cleveland waste energy and create CO2 emissions going through peoples’ garbage, which more than offsets any environmental benefit from recycling,” said Russ Harding, former director, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and environmental policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.
Wendy McElroy ([email protected]) is a research fellow for the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. Excerpted by permission from