Recycle or Else? Big Brother to Pick Through Trash

High-tech trash carts expose Cleveland residents who don't recycle.

Aug. 26, 2010— -- Big Brother has gotten down and dirty to make sure Cleveland residents recycle.

As part of a $2.5 million waste-collection system, the city plans to give residents high-tech trash carts embedded with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that monitor how much they recycle.

If Clevelanders don't recycle enough of their garbage, the city now has the power to issue $100 fines.

"Our whole force here is to encourage residents to properly use their containers and, when they do, that makes our system more efficient," Waste Collection Commissioner Ronnie Owens said.

"We're going to run reports on who this particular truck picked up from today and if it indicates on a consistent basis that your household hasn't been recycling, then we have officers that I will send out … to check and see what's going on."

The city launched a pilot program in 2007 for 15,000 households to test chip-embedded trash and recycling containers. The city council voted last week to extend the program to 25,000 households and, potentially, continue until all city residents participate in the automated, curbside pick-up program.

Owens said the new program will not only help the city protect the environment and deliver public services more efficiently, but also reap big savings. While it costs the city $30 per ton to haul trash away, the city actually gets paid $26 per ton to recycle.

RFID Tags Track Recycling by Households

"We're asking for folks to do a culture change, basically, instead of throwing everything away, take one extra step and put it in a different container," he said.

Using the RFID tags, the trash and recycling carts can be weighed and accounted for by trucks fitted with compatible technology.

The information can help the city track its staff's performance, as well as keep tabs on its residents' recycling habits.

"If we go, say, maybe four or six weeks without seeing any recycling out there and we also see that you're using the [waste] cart but you still have extra garbage on the ground, that will lead us to go ahead and inspect your garbage to verify whether you're recycling or not," Owens said.

Residents Say City Recycling Program Is a Step in the Right Direction

If 10 percent of the trash in the garbage bin is recyclable, residents could face $100 fines.

Cleveland has issued waste violations for the past 15 years and the new program extends that authority to recycling, Owens said. He emphasized that residents might get away with warnings in the beginning but would face financial penalties after repeated abuses.

The Cleveland City Council voted unanimously to support the new program and told in statement, "It is one of many tools the city has to promote recycling; help keep our streets and neighborhoods cleaner, safer and greener; and combat frequent abusers who continuously disregard the city's laws on trash and waste disposal.

"Council asks the city to use good judgment and discretion when determining if a resident should be fined and work to resolve issues with residents who are not continuously abusing the system."

But the prospect of Big Brother spy technology creeping into garbage cans has generated buzz from people across the country.

Critics Say Program Includes 'Spy Chips'

In an editorial this week, the Washington Times criticized Cleveland's program.

"At the first opportunity, voters should take care to replace council members who embrace spy chips with brand-new leaders who will respect individual freedom and common sense," it said.

Conservative pundit Michelle Malkin also chimed in with a blog post about the "nosy trash cans."

"Yeah. It stinks. And taxpayers don't need any high-falutin' technology to detect it," she said.

But some local residents say they see it as a step in a right direction.

"I'm excited to see Cleveland taking steps toward recycling." said Liz Ilg, the Cleveland-area campaign director for the non-profit Ohio Citizen Action. "It seems like it's been too long, if you compare Cleveland to other places in the state."

She said it's not an issue her group is focusing on at the moment but, for the Cleveland resident who makes an effort to recycle, the new program will make it easier to keep her recyclable waste out of landfills.

Other Trash-Tracking Programs Reward Residents

But the city's punitive -- rather than incentive-based program -- might not be as effective as other similar programs popping up across the country, she said.

"I think for a lot of people who aren't accustomed to recycling, they'll probably be more motivated to recycle with positive incentives," she said.

Atul Nanda, an executive with RecycleBank, an innovative program that rewards recyclers by the pound, agreed.

Using microchips attached to recycling bins, RecycleBank helps cities across the country and Canada track how much each household recycles. The pounds of recyclables translate into points that can be redeemed at a variety of retail partners, including Bed, Bath & Beyond and CVS pharmacies.

"We'd rather incentivize residents as opposed to penalizing residents," he said. "We'd much rather take the approach whereby using the RFID tags and putting it on a cart and tracking participation rates ... and recycling rates for municipalities and then rewarding residents for recycling. We think that will be more readily accepted by residents."

Nanda said Toronto, for example, uses RFID tags to track recycling but doesn't penalize non-participating households. Chicago, Phoenix and Houston are a few cities that track recycling and reward residents with RecycleBank.

Other cities such as New York, San Francisco and Newark issue fines for violating recycling laws, although they lack the high-tech monitoring.