Recycling: eco-friendly, responsible and … computerized? The recycling industry is getting an electronic boost in cities across the world via radio frequency identification (RFID) tracking chips. The chips allow authorities to keep tabs on bins and recognize resident recycling efforts. They save sanitation workers from spending valuable time figuring out which bin goes where, but at what expense?

Let’s Talk Money

One reason cities are so interested in RFID tracking is — you guessed it — money. It costs municipal governments to send trash to a landfill, but they can actually earn money from recyclables. Tracking chips in recycling bins could help governments enforce recycling regulations and save on costly trash disposal fees.

However, RFID chips aren’t free. When cities decide to implement the tracking chips, they must replace their existing recycling bins, invest in numerous electronic chips, install scanning devices in trucks and more. RFID chips cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Sanitation companies also invest a good chunk of their money on community outreach each year. They spend time and energy delivering information and materials to the community in order to increase participation in garbage and recycling programs.

With tracking chips in recycling bins, companies can easily find which residents or neighborhoods don’t recycle. That way, they can target their outreach specifically to those who do not participate rather than wasting effort on those who already do. Though narrowing reach isn’t usually the goal of an organization, it could help municipalities save money and improve recycling rates.

Green Police

Some cities, like St. Paul, Minn., simply use RFID chips to keep track of bin locations. Other cities have installed electronic detectors in collection trucks to scan and interpret the chips, determining the contents of trash bins. This data is then sent to the sanitation company and will alert them to customers who are not recycling.

RFID chips in Wisconsin are even equipped with surveillance cameras. The cameras capture the contents of bins and let sanitation companies know if waste is sorted correctly.

In some cases, the info collected from tracking chips and video leads to penalties. For example, Cleveland residents who do not participate in a mandatory recycling program face a $100 fine.

U.S. cities have been using RFID tracking in recycling bins for years. European cities have been using them for even longer. It should be noted that not all cities that have implemented this tracking system use the chips to capture video or to catch non-recyclers. Some are simply using the chips to manage their supplies or launch recycling incentive programs designed to reward residents for recycling.

Privacy Concerns

Many citizens are outraged about the invasion of privacy tracking chips pose. After all, what you throw away is often very personal. Some consider the video-equipped RFID chips equivalent to someone rummaging through their trash and peering into their private lives.

Civil liberty advocates are concerned and wonder if the chips violate human rights. They believe that while enhancing recycling programs is an admirable endeavor, citizen privacy should be prioritized.

Those who feel their privacy is threatened by the chips may avoid them by taking advantage of recycling drop-off locations. Search for a drop-off center near you here.

Weighing Pros and Cons

It is worth considering that bins equipped with RFID technology are significantly larger than older bins. With smaller bins, excess recyclable materials are often left on the curb to be picked up as trash. New bins will allow for more space for recyclables.

Additionally, because sanitation companies are incentivized to dispose of recyclables rather than trash, RFID chips could potentially end up paying for themselves. If the RFID-equipped recycling program encourages enough residents to recycle more, sanitation companies could end up spending less on trash disposal, thus lowering their pick-up costs.

Nonetheless, the concern regarding tracking chips and privacy is a valid one. The chips, however, have proven to encourage residents to recycle more of their household trash rather than send it to a landfill. It is crucial that residents understand the environmental benefits of recycling and take advantage of local programs, and RFID is one tool to help with that.

Do you think the RFID should be dismissed as an invasion of privacy or applauded as an innovative recycling effort?

By Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.