Cities try to ease residents’ fears about RFID bins

Waste & Recycling News

BYLINE: Shawn Wright



It sits quietly on the recycling cart, tracking when a container is on the curb.

It knows who’s being a good recycler and who’s not.

But some think radio frequency identification (RFID) chips are part of an Orwellian conspiracy.

“It’s a passive chip; it does nothing except know where it lives,” said Mike Santmire, director of the street and solid waste department in Mount Holly, N.C. “It doesn’t know what goes in it, what kind of beer you drink, what your secret fantasies are. All it knows is where it lives and when it’s emptied.”

Mount Holly has had RFID chips on its recycling carts since January 2010 and was the first city in Gaston County to have single-stream recycling, Santmire said. Even neighboring Charlotte followed Mount Holly.

But in Gastonia, N.C., about 13 miles west of Mount Holly, the fear of government control or purported punishment for not recycling worried some residents.

In December, about 27,000 new 96-gallon recycling carts equipped with RFID chips were set to be delivered. That is, until the City Council voted to stop delivery, citing concerns about violations of privacy and the possibility that monitoring of recycling could lead to fines or penalties for uncooperative residents.

“The bottom line is RFID chips are not a GPS chip. It does not track you; it does not track a location,” said Neil Mitchell, director of marketing for RFID chip and reader manufacturer Alien Technology Inc. “Unless it’s described very specifically in layman’s terms, people could jump to an incorrect conclusion that this is able to track you. It can’t.”

Gastonia’s cease and desist order made its recycling contractor, Republic Services of Charlotte, remove the RFID chips at a cost of $24,000. At $1 per cart, the city had signed a five-year contract with Republic to lease 24,000 carts with the RFID chips.

In addition, Gastonia lost out on a $75,000 state grant. Mount Holly, on the other hand, received a $100,000 state grant that helped pay for its carts. One of the key requirements for getting the grant was that the carts must have RFID chips.

“While the RFID chips certainly can be used as an educational tool, as far as the overall program, it was just a small component of it,” Gastonia City Manager Flip Bombardier said. “The RFID chips, while beneficial, are not an absolute-must in the success of the program.”

Gastonia still uses the carts, without the chips. In January, Bombardier said the city saw about a 10% to 15% reduction in the tonnage going to landfill. He estimated that equaled to about 200 tons of recycling.

In two years, Santmire said, Mount Holly has recycled 3.5 million pounds, saving $25,000 to $35,000 in tipping fees per year.

Santmire said Gastonia was in damage-control mode and didn’t educate its residents enough. He said he doesn’t know how Gastonia could let grant money slip away.

Mount Holly’s carts have the RFID chips, but it doesn’t have an RFID reader to collect and compute the data. Santmire said the city hopes to get a $10,000 grant this year to pay for the reader.

“Now, it’s time to get the numbers, figure out exactly what we have, what we have going on and how to improve it,” Santmire said.

When it comes to alleviating fear about RFID chips, city officials say knowledge is power.

“Of course, initially when you hear about an RFID tag inside of a cart, you have that concern,” said Ronnie Owens, waste commissioner for Cleveland, Ohio. “But one of the things we’ve been trying to do is educate our residents that we’re not trying to be ‘Big Brother,’ we’re just trying to make our system more efficient. We’ve been educating them as such. Now that they understand and they have the carts, it seems to have been working out well, so far.”

In Cleveland’s 19 wards, the city put on community education meetings as to what the chips were designed to do and how the system worked. It also communicated through print, television and radio media.

“We just tried to give everybody as much information as we possibly could,” Owens said.

In September, the city rolled out 25,000 carts equipped with the RFID chips. Otto Environmental Systems manufactures the 96-gallon containers. This year, another 15,000 carts that were involved in an initial 2007 pilot recycling program will be retrofitted with the RFID technology.

“It’s been giving us good data that we can look at and show how our system is working,” Owens said. “The key to this system is that not only does it track how efficient our guys are, but it also identifies who is setting out their recyclables and who is not.”

In Cleveland, there is a penalty for those who aren’t recycling. In 2010, the City Council approved updated trash collection ordinances to include a section on automated waste collection and curbside recycling. The law changes infractions from a minor misdemeanor to a civil penalty. The recycling law only applies to residents who have been issued the carts.

About 215 miles away, Dayton, Ohio, launched its RFID chip containers in April 2010. It’s using the chips to track who is participating and who isn’t. Each collection truck is equipped with RFID readers, which then gathers the chip’s information through a special antenna installed on each truck.

Dayton uses Morgan Hill, Calif.-based Alien Technology on its carts, along with the software to read the chips.

“Some of the people were doing the ‘Big Brother’ thing, but it was pretty isolated,” said Thomas Ritchie Jr., waste manager for Dayton. “Generally, for most people, once you showed them what was being collected and what was being recorded … it quieted down for the most part.”

Education was a big part to getting Dayton’s big bin in the hands of 19,000 households, Ritchie said; the city used fliers, call-in help numbers and a designated website to inform the public.

The city said it has had a significant increase in recycling, going from about 4,000 tons per year to 6,000 tons per year. Dayton estimates it could save about $343,000 per year if it collects 1,000 tons of recyclables a month. The savings come from diverting more waste from the landfill, where tipping fees are $38.25 a ton, and sending it to the recycling center, where disposal costs drop to zero after 500 tons.

Dayton also received a $500,000 state grant for its RFID-equipped carts.

As an incentive, Dayton has its Recycling Rewards Bucks Challenge. Once a month, the city uses the collection data and randomly selects four participants and gives them $100. The program is funded by Rumpke Consolidated Companies Inc., which processes the city’s recyclables.

“Recycling is the next generation of saving our world,” Santmire said. “The chip is just a tool, a tool to show us how to improve, how to educate and how to get the people to understand the importance of it.”



Copyright 2012 Crain Communications
All Rights Reserved