Recycling Police Go High-Tech

In “Recycling Bins Go Big Brother on Cleveland Residents,”

FastCompany.com writer Ariel Schwartz reported that the city is introducing a $2.5 million “Big Brother-like system next year to make sure residents are recycling.”

Chips embedded in recycling carts will keep track of how often residents take the carts to the curb for recycling. If a bin hasn’t been taken to the curb in a long time, city workers will go rummaging through the trash to find recyclables. And if workers find that over 10% of the trash is made up of recyclable materials, residents could face a $100 fine.

The system isn’t entirely new. Cleveland began a pilot program with the carts in 2007, according to Cleveland.com … Alexandria, Virginia has a similar system, and cities in England have been using high-tech trash systems for years. But if the chip system works in a city as big as Cleveland, other small to medium sized cities will probably take note.

The program makes sense as long as cities don’t go too far. San Francisco, for example, has threatened to fine residents who don’t compost their waste. A chip system installed in San Francisco compost bins could probably make the city a lot of cash–and cost residents dearly.

Well, yes, there is a certain bureaucratic logic to it. It’s just the off-hand concern about going “too far” that leaves me a little uneasy.

Mark Steyn took it to the next logical step. He’s skeptical, as you can discern from the title of his blog post, “Gullible eager-beaver planet savers”:

In 2006, to comply with the “European Landfill Directive,” various municipal councils in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland introduced “smart” trash cans—“wheelie bins” with a penny-sized electronic chip embedded within that helpfully monitors and records your garbage as it’s tossed into the truck. Once upon a time, you had to be a double-0 agent with Her Majesty’s Secret Service to be able to install that level of high-tech spy gadgetry. But now any old low-level apparatchik from the municipal council can do it, all in the cause of a sustainable planet. So where’s the harm?

And once Big Brother’s in your trash can, why stop there? Our wheelie-bin sensors are detecting an awful lot of junk-food packaging in your garbage. Maybe you should be eating healthier. In Tokyo, Matsushita engineers have created a “smart toilet”: you sit down, and the seat sends a mild electric charge through your bottom that calculates your body/fat ratio, and then transmits the information to your doctors. Japan has a fast-aging population imposing unsustainable costs on its health system, so the state has an interest in tracking your looming health problems, and nipping them in the butt. In England, meanwhile, Twyford’s, whose founder invented the modern ceramic toilet in the 19th century, has developed an advanced model—the VIP (Versatile Interactive Pan)—that examines your urine and stools for medical problems and dietary content: if you’re not getting enough roughage, it automatically sends a signal to the nearest supermarket requesting a delivery of beans. All you have to do is sit there as your VIP toilet orders à la carte and prescribes your medication.

In “The New Despotism of Bureaucracy” on NRO, the Heritage Foundation’s Matthew Spalding wrote:

The United States has been moving down this path in fits and starts for some time, from the Progressive Era reforms through the New Deal’s interventions in the economy. But the real shift and expansion occurred more recently, under the Great Society and its progeny. The expansion of regulatory activities on a society-wide scale in the 1960s and 1970s led to vast new centralizing authority in the federal government, such that today the primary function of government is to regulate. The modern Congress is a supervisory body exercising oversight of the true lawmakers — administrative policymakers.

And not just just at the federal level, of course. Now, the distant disembodied “administrative state” may be more and more personified in your neighbor in town and township. And when he strolls up your driveway to talk to you, it won’t be about your interest in coaching Little League or to borrow a weed whacker but to ask: Why did you put those old newspapers in the trash?

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  • Joe DeVet

    If it’s actually costing our city to have those chippy green recycle bins in play, as opposed to saving landfill tipping cost, then I’m against them. The problem with putting things in landfills is not pollution, not harming the planet, but the cost.

    But I’m guessing our and other cities are doing this to save costs. When tipping costs (cost of adding a ton of garbage) in local landfills reach a certain level, it probably makes sense to recycle if other conditions are met. Tipping costs can only go up over time. One such other condition would be an efficient sorting system for the recycle materials.

    We are actually on an incentive system–so much shopping credits for so much weight of recycle. Our chip tells the weigh system on the truck who to credit each particular load. After each pickup there’s an e-mail reminder to check our accumulated credits and use them.

    I’m EXTREMELY SKEPTICAL about recycling-as-religion, and against enviro-scams of any kind. However, I’m willing to give our city the benefit of the doubt on the new system–AS AN EXERCISE IN ECONOMICS. My guess is they break even on the paper content (the biggest portion), and the plastics, make a little on steel cans, and more on aluminum. If they also save on tipping costs, then we come out winners with this system. The volume of our household’s garbage has been about cut in half since the new system is in place.

    If they need to police a system like this, which seems to makes economic sense, then I’m OK with it. If they overdo the policing, they know we’ll vote in someone who either discontinues the system or stops overdoing the policing.

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