Big Brother Is Watching You Recycle
NOVEMBER 24, 2010 by WENDY MCELROY
In 2009, after four years of controversial and piecemeal policies intended to enforce recycling, England imposed a complex and compulsory system of garbage-sorting on homeowners.
Citing the British model, Cleveland, Ohio, is taking a giant step toward a similar scheme of compulsory recycling. In 2011 some 25,000 households will be required to use recycling bins fitted with radio-frequency identification tags (RFIDs)—tiny computer chips that can remotely provide information such as the weight of the bin’s contents and that allow passing garbage trucks to verify their presence. If a household does not put its recycle bin out on the curb, an inspector could check its garbage for improperly discarded recyclables and fine the scofflaws $100. Moreover, if a bin is put out in a tardy manner or left out too long, the household could be fined. Cleveland plans to implement the system citywide within six years.
Extreme recycling programs are nothing new, even in American cities. In San Francisco recycling and composting are mandatory; trash is sorted into three different bins with compliance enforced through fines. New York City has a similar program.
Neither are RFID bins new. They were introduced on London streets in 2005 ostensibly to track the amount of trash households produced and to discourage “overproduction,” but they have also had trials in American cities. Earlier this year, Alexandria, Virginia, approved such bins, which were to be placed with households this autumn.
Cleveland is particularly important, however, because of its size. Cash-starved local governments will be watching to see if an American city as big as Cleveland can use RFID bins to increase revenues. The revenues would flow from three basic sources: a trash-collection fee that could be increased, as in Alexandria; the imposition of fines; and the profit, if any, from selling recyclables. The last source should not be dismissed. Recycling programs are not generally cost-efficient, but much of the reason is that collections need to be cleaned and re-sorted at their destination.
If households can be forced to assume these labor-intensive tasks, then selling recyclables—especially such goods as aluminum cans—is more likely to be profitable. (Perversely, the demand for volume recycling may hit the poor the hardest; in the wake of recession, it is becoming increasingly common for people to hoard their aluminum cans in order to turn them in for cash.)
The British Model
Since the British system is praised as a model, it is useful to examine its specifics.
An estimated 2.6 million Britons now have RFID bins monitoring how and when they sort garbage from recyclables. Implementation varies from borough to borough since trash collection, as in America, is under local jurisdiction. But the basics of the scheme are the same, with fines for noncompliance ranging up to £1,000 (over $1,500).
Councils routinely employ “rubbish police,” who fine households that commit offenses such as producing “excessive” trash. For example, Oxford employs “waste education officers” who go through household bins and instruct the owners on proper sorting and disposal; the officers also fine residents 80 pounds if the trash overflows the 240-litre bin, which is emptied fortnightly. Of course, this makes trash from a large party or other events like Christmas problematic. (Such a fine differs from a fee for additional service in at least two ways. The “customer” is unable to cancel the service and go to a competitor, and the fine is absurdly high, especially given the extremely low service provided.)
The policing of trash bins is also enforced by surveillance cameras; this practice became evident in a recent controversy when a Coventry woman was captured on video throwing a cat in a trash bin.
The British system also mandates how trash is to be sorted. The U.K. website Green Launches explained gleefully:
The next time you dump your garbage in a bin, make sure you have it sorted well and dropped in the correct bin. Or else, you’ll probably burn a £1,000 fine in your pocket. Household waste like food scraps, tea bags etc in the wrong bin will have the family penalized. This forces families to use up to five different types of bins for waste separation and encourages picking up of recyclable products. This will also include the compulsory use of slop buckets to get rid of food waste.
The Orwellian intrusion into the lives of peaceful Britons is justified primarily on the same grounds used by Cleveland: It is a “green” measure to preserve the environment. Green Launches continued, “Environment secretary, Hilary Benn came up with this idea that will help reduce green house gas emissions. These strict and hefty rules are sure to raise a cry amongst taxpayers and residents. But these rules will also help increase the production and use of greener energy resources and at the same time, decrease those mounting piles in landfills.”
Cleveland echoes the environmental justification.
In It for the Money
The British also justify the draconian trash system on financial grounds. Benn once exclaimed to the press, “What sort of a society would throw away aluminium cans worth £500 a ton when producers are crying out for the raw material?” Generally speaking, however, the Brits downplay the government’s financial motives.
Here Cleveland parts company with its British counterparts and makes it abundantly clear that money is a driving factor. City waste-collection commissioner Ronnie Owens, who perhaps remembers the municipal bankruptcy of the 1980s, says, “The Division of Waste Collection is on track to meet its goal of issuing 4,000 citations this year.” In short the goal is revenue enhancement not perfect compliance. Indeed, the two stand in conflict with each other. Bloggers have widely speculated that the recycling scheme is an excuse to create noncompliance and thus maximize the payment of fines.
Bankrupt cities across North America will be watching the Cleveland experiment. At the first indication of success—that is, of revenue enhancement—debates on mandatory recycling will break out in a multitude of city council chambers. It is not enough to hope that the Cleveland experiment will be a debacle; it almost certainly will be one but, nonetheless, debacles are often profitable to those who conduct them.
Perhaps, unlike the British, Americans will object to an RFID chip monitoring their garbage on privacy grounds. This objection may well be valid but it does not touch on the motives of local governments that consider mandatory recycling schemes. Nevertheless, it may well be the strongest defense that can be mounted.