The Spirit of Radio

Radio frequency identification tags link trash and recycling cans to owners, ensuring easier and more accurate collection.

October 1, 2010

8 Min Read
The Spirit of Radio

Michael Fickes

Municipal solid waste departments and private waste management companies are suddenly buying radio frequency identification (RFID) tags by the hundreds of thousands, only to throw them in the garbage — specifically, embedding them in garbage and recycling bins. In Cleveland, RFID is part of a $25-million dollar solid waste modernization program. The tags will link trash and recycling bins to owners, aiding management's efforts to cut costs and increase recycling. At Phoenix-based Republic Services, RFID tags are part of an incentive program designed to boost recycling quantities.

Understanding RFID

An RFID tag is like a barcode that can transmit its identifying numbers as a radio signal. This means that it is not necessary to see an RFID tag or even be close to it to scan it, as opposed to a barcode, which must be scanned with a handheld reader.

Instead, small readers placed on waste and recycling trucks can automatically detect and read RFID tags. The readers are small radios with antennas that constantly emit a signal. When an RFID tag comes within range, the reader's signal supplies the tag with the tiny bit of power required to activate it. The active tag transmits its data, and the reader records it.

The data on an RFID tag is a series of numbers that identify the object to which it is attached. A tag may also store the name and address of a trashcan's owner as well as other information.

The reader passes the information on the RFID tag to a computer database where software applications can put the data to use.

Modernizing Cleveland

Cleveland recently began a $25 million modernization program that will introduce automated trucks and RFID technology to the city's solid waste and recycling operations. The city collects trash and recycling from 150,000 homes every week. Ronnie M. Owens, commissioner of Cleveland's Division of Waste Collection and Disposal, currently manages a fleet of 75 manual rear-loading trucks, each of which runs about 50 routes per day.

"Our program will automate our collection operations with new trucks and RFID technology," Owens says. "The goals include cutting collection costs, reducing worker's compensation claims and creating a return on investment in our recycling program."

Under the program, Owens is purchasing new automated trucks and refitting some of the existing manual rear-loading trucks with semi-automated tippers to service areas that the automated trucks can't get to. Each new automated truck is expected to service between 800 and 1,000 households per day, about twice the number of homes serviced by a manual truck. Automation also will reduce the number of people required to operate a truck. Despite the efficiencies gained, Owens says he does not plan to lay anyone off. Instead, he will re-assign people to other tasks within the department.

The program will deliver new trash and recycling cans to 25,000 households per year for the next few years — eventually providing new cans to every household in the city. These cans feature embedded RFID tags associated with the resident and address. As the cans are tipped, readers on the trucks will scan the tags. Upon returning to the yard, the truck's reader will upload the information collected to a computer database.

By analyzing the data, supervisors will be able to monitor the time it takes for drivers to move from one house to another, ensuring that routes are being run according to route sheets and generally helping to keep productivity up.

Perhaps more importantly, the RFID data will identify which households put out trash and recycling, which only put out trash, which only put out recyclables, and which left nothing at the curb. Owens will then direct the division’s educational efforts at those who are lagging on recycling. These efforts will include distribution of printed and electronic literature, mentions at city meetings and, in some cases, personal visits from inspectors. Owens is also investigating programs that provide incentives to residents that recycle.

The returns for the program could be enormous. A recent Cleveland trash analysis showed that about 42 percent of the 220,000 tons of trash collected by the city every year are recyclable.

"We can sell recyclable materials for $27 per ton," Owens says. "But we pay $33 per ton to dispose of trash at the landfill. For every new ton of recycling that we generate, the city will save $33 in landfill fees and earn $27 in recyclable sales. That's $60 per ton."

In other words, if Owens can divert 42 percent, or 92,000 tons, of the city's 220,000-ton trash stream to recycling, he will generate $5.5 million for the city in saved costs and recycling sales.

RFID and Recycling Incentives

In August, Republic Services signed an agreement with New York-based RecycleBank to implement an incentive-based recycling program in 1 million households served by the hauler. Republic will provide recycling carts with RFID tags to those customers.

The RecycleBank program encourages households to recycle by rewarding them with points based on the amount they recycle. The points are redeemable at local and national retailers, restaurants and grocery stores. The participating businesses include Bed Bath & Beyond, CVS Pharmacy, Whole Food Markets, McDonald's and Omaha Steaks.

Why RFID? Why not use the driver's route sheet? What about onboard computers with global positioning systems (GPS)? "The program rewards people for participating," says Will Flower, vice president of communications with Republic. "The rewards must go to the right people. Suppose a truck picks up four containers in a cul-de-sac with six houses. A GPS system can't determine the owners of the containers. The chip has a number associated with an address and makes it possible to show for certain that a container belonging to this customer was picked up."

In fact, to add certainty to the system, Republic combines RFID technology with GPS latitudes and longitudes. "That gives us several pieces of information to associate with the address," says Mitch Hoban, director of municipal services for Republic. The RFID data goes to RecycleBank, which deposits points into an account established for the household.

Do more residents recycle when they can benefit from a RecycleBank program? "Yes," says Hoban. "I can't quantify it because programs differ. In some communities, it is new. In other communities, a switch to single stream or an upgrade to a different size container will also affect volumes. But RecycleBank programs do increase recycling."

More Benefits

If driver and recycling management were the only benefits offered by RFID, there probably wouldn't be as much buzz about the technology.

"You can also use the tags to identify customers that haven't paid," says Rich Miner, manager of operations for Republic. To do this, you instruct the driver to pick up only those carts whose RFID numbers appear on the route list and remove accounts that haven't paid from the list.

Haulers across Europe have been using RFID technology for a number of years and have developed additional uses for it, including billing and verification. "The infrastructure for other applications are still being developed in the U.S.," says Mark Scaparro, senior vice president with the Identification Solutions Group of Irvine, Calif.-based HID Global, an RFID tag supplier.

Suppose a waste hauler charges to pick up trash but not to pick up recycling. If a resident doesn't put out trash one week, the RFID system could be set to tell the billing system that the customer incurred no charges. Such a system is gaining acceptance in European countries where haulers routinely charge for trash but not recycling or compost as a means of increasing diversion, according to Frank Reen, marketing director with Exeter, N.H.-based CapturIT, a provider of onboard data-management systems.

Yet another system being used in Ireland and Germany uses RFID to manage debit payment plans. Under these plans, residents fund debit accounts, which haulers draw down after providing service. The RFID system tells the haulers which cans have funds in their associated accounts and which don't. The benefits are threefold. Haulers eliminate the expense of generating and sending invoices. They no longer have to wait to be paid. Nor do they have to chase down bad accounts.

Granted, a debit system would be of limited use in U.S. municipalities in which residents pay for solid waste services through property taxes. Then again, haulers that work by subscription might be eager to eliminate the cost of invoicing.

As tipping costs at landfills continue to rise, haulers that do not deliver to their own landfills may appreciate the cost effectiveness of a system designed to reduce landfill fees while increasing recycling income.

In time, even more applications for RFID will be developed. As such, RFID implementation by Cleveland's solid waste division, Republic Services and other municipalities and hauling companies across the country represents the cusp of a new phase of technological exploration and adoption by the solid waste industry.

Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.

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