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Cities Track Recycling with Electronic Tags

Written by Yaryna Klimchak, Discovery News
Published: September 29, 2010

One million households across the United States and the United Kingdom are using electronic tags that help track how citizens recycle.

The tags encourage people to recycle -- which saves a city money – but they also collect useful information that can indicate which households are recycling, where trash bins are located and how collection employees perform.

“Before we had to keep track of our bins manually and we are all human so mistakes are made,” explained Cleveland, Ohio’s waste collection commissioner Ron Owens. “These new bins with the tags allow us another tool to be more operationally efficient.”

The city of Cleveland plans to roll out the new bins beginning April 2011. Owens shed light on the benefits this program will bring the city.

The electronic tags are radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, and as their name implies, use radio waves to send signals. These tags are similar to toll tags, such as E-ZPASS in New York and I-PASS in Chicago, which allow drivers to automatically pay tolls.

The recycling tags are protected by a plastic covering and are installed into the upper rim of garbage bins. Like all RFID tags, they constantly emit a radio signal. When a garbage truck picks up the bin from the curb, an antenna onboard the truck identifies the radio signal, which is unique to each tag, and therefore each resident. A computer on the truck collects the data, including the time and date the bin was collected.

Cleveland hopes the tag will encourage recycling, but will not look the other way when folks get lazy. If a household doesn’t bring a recycling bin to the curb for more than four weeks straight, they could be fined. First, a city employee will come to the home to assess whether or not the resident has been recycling. If the employee doesn’t see a bin on recycling day, he or she will take a photo of the empty curb, and the resident will be fined $100.

“This one added law will promote and encourage people to use the can properly though education and enforcement,” said Owens. “The fine will only be used as a final option.”

Cleveland may want to keep an eye on the city of Alexandria, VA, which is delivering recycling bins with RFID tags to residents starting Nov 1, 2010. The new bins will be larger than existing ones -- 35- or 64-gallons compared to 18 gallons – to promote participation.

“When people run out of room in their recycling bins they end up throwing away recyclable materials into the trash,” deputy director of operations, Yon Lambert explained. “We are trying to encourage residents to recycle more by giving them larger bins.”

RFID tags will help the city of Alexandria more easily identify participation rates in recycling. In the past, the city was only able to track participation rates twice a year. Someone would have to physically drive around the neighborhood on trash day and count the number of bins outside each home. But with the RFID tags, counting the number of households that recycle will be much easier.

Having a more accurate number of people participating is important to the city’s bottom line. It costs Alexandria $78 for each ton of trash disposed. But they earn anywhere from $30 to $40 per ton for recycling, depending on the material. Currently, the city’s recycling rate is at about 29 percent, but if they can increase it to 32 percent by the end of the year, they will save more money.

While city municipalities in the United States are using the technology to encourage recycling, one company is taking the idea a step farther. Recycle Bank, which is located in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, offers redeemable points for recycling. Two pounds of recycled material will net an individual five points. They can choose to redeem the points once accumulated at a local or national business or donate them to a Green Schools Program. This lets schools apply for a grant, in which they can receive anywhere from $500 to 5,000.

Who ever thought that waste collection could be so profitable?

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