Compulsory RecyclingIn 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.
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.)
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