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High Tech Recycling Bins Prod Clevelanders to Recycle or Risk Fines

Leon Kaye | Tuesday August 24th, 2010 | 5 Comments

While recycling has long been mainstream in more municipalities, not everyone participates in the weekly trash sorting routine.  As garbage disposal fees increase and landfill space decreases, cities are looking for more creative–or intrusive—methods to prod residents into sorting their garbage.

Some cities have adopted a pay-as-you-trash model; across the pond in Slovenia, its capital, Ljubljana, experimented with a recycling lottery that gave lucky residents cash prizes.  Now Cleveland, Ohio, is taking a punitive approach:  its recycling bins now boast sensors that monitor whether residents are taking their recycling bins to the curb on garbage days.  If the blue bin is not taken to the curb on a regular basis, trash collectors will check out the bins to gauge whether trash is correctly sorted.  If it is not, residents get dinged with a $100 fine.

The initiative started as a pilot program in 2007, when 15,000 recycling bins were sent to households.  Now the city is rolling out to all residents to this city of 480,000 at the cost of about $9 million.  The recycling bins have an RFID (radio-frequency identification) tag embedded in them—hence the ability to monitor whether they are moving to street on a weekly basis.

Other cities have experimented with RFID-embedded recycling bins.  Charlotte, NC, uses them, but has no plans to fine residents.  For now, city officials use the technology to see which neighborhoods have higher recycling rates and therefore follow North Carolina trash disposal law.

Cleveland has an economic incentive to increase recycling rates.  For every ton of trash taken to the landfill, the city pays $30; on average, the city nets about $26 for each ton of recycled materials.  How the city will carry out and follow the new code will be a challenge:  the city mandates that no more than 10% of a trash can’s (not the recycling bin) contents have recyclables.  How city workers can measure whether a recalcitrant bin has 10% or even 15% of recycled content remains to be seen.  But the law can also incentivize property owners to maintain their property:  the fines are doled out to property owners, not tenants.

Reactions will be all over the map.  Those who recycle will not feel any effects.  Some may feel this is simply big government poking their nose into people’s business, or bins.  And the story of the nosy neighbor looking through everyone else’s trash will never go away.  The chances are high, however, that more cities will follow; the need to decrease landfill while coping with shrinking budgets makes such efforts as those in Cleveland an attractive proposal.


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