Big Brother Is Watching You Recycle

RFID Recycling BinsCompulsory Recycling

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 were 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. 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.

wendy mcelroyIf 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.)

Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy is an author and the editor of See her homepage for more information.

Republished with permission from The Freeman Online.


  1. says

    Maybe neither Ms McElroy nor commentor Ryder so intended, but both ignore or downplay key context and fact.

    First, recycling IS desirable for society, economy and environment. Recycling – when reuse or abstention is not possible -is getting to be ever more necessary to save resources which either are scarce or whose further extraction, production or disposal is costly to economy and environment.

    Second, recycling does NOT have to be enforced by ‘extreme’ tyrannical tactics in order to be ‘extreme’ in achievement.

    Perhaps Cleveland is determined to be retro and fascist, but many other cities (such as my not-all-that-progessive home city of Long Beach CA) are quietly demonstrating that with recycling, as with other desired and useful citizen behaviors, it’s cheaper and more effective to secure ever-increasing cooperation via affirmative education vs. negative enforcement.

    Given appropriate true costing and state mandates, non-tyrannical recycling can pay a city well, even (as here in urban California) just through avoided costs of landfill and trucking thereto.

    And cost-effective recycling does not have to impose complex sorting schemes on the individual household: overall cost and inconvenience of recycling to households plus government is decreased by leaving arcane sorting to the experts – employees of recycling firms or departments.

    At the very least, even a campaign of vigorous recycling enforcement increases its chances for being accepted and successful when preceded by and based on education.

    If cities contemplate treating their own citizens primarily as wayward children and potential criminals in regard recycling, let them ask the question that a parent must always address: in order to encourage your kid to a desired behavior, do you start with a whipping? Or do you first and foremost give affirmative demonstration, make provisions whereby the behavior is easy and natural, and lead by example?

    • in_awe says

      I live in Irvine and the success rate for recycling is outstanding – all accomplished without coercion. Through continuing education campaigns and contests the city has won national awards for percentage of recycled waste to household waste.

      Several years ago the city abandoned the use of 3 curbside containers for recycling (glass/cans, paper, plastic) in favor of a single recycling bin. This shifted the responsibility to sort refuse from the citizen to the employee of Waste Management. Total household participation soared because compliance with sorting rules was dropped and people were just encouraged to recycle as much as possible; and if you made a mistake, a sorter at WM took care of it.

      What a concept – seek advancement through cooperation and education rather than force.

      • Ryder says

        My town did the same thing… But as we can see, coercion is the tool of choice for progressives… History shows this clearly.

  2. Ryder says

    I’m very surprised by this articles neutral tone toward slavery…

    Where have all of the humane liberals gone? It seems that the only problem that todays progressive had with slavery is that it was largely race based. Other than that, hard labor without compensation, and punishment for failure to comply, is now just peachy.

    Humans forced to labor to meet the profitable needs of the state should be repulsive to anyone, how else to describe the idea where people are “forced to assume these labor-intensive tasks, then selling recyclables—especially such goods as aluminum cans—is more likely to be profitable.”

    Of course as history has shown again and again, it is always the progressive that embraces totalitarianism first… Finding justification at every incremental turn. It never ends well.

    • in_awe says

      The left has been historically blindered to their own support of racism and totalitarianism because they always view themselves as being well intentioned. I have also noticed that the emphasis is on process, not actual outcomes. When outcomes prove to be negative there is always the right to blame and the need to double-down on the liberty sapping action.

      The lack of introspection by liberals and progressives has amazed me for decades. If you bring this to their attention, their reflexive response is ad hominem attack rather than reflection.

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