Laurel tests recycling bins with ID chips to track usage

By Caitlin Moran
The Gazette
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Recycling in Laurel is becoming more high-tech, thanks to a city program that uses bins embedded with radio frequency ID chips to track residents' recycling habits.

About 400 of the technology-enabled carts have been distributed in the city's Greens at Patuxent neighborhood in a pilot program, and the city plans to use the bins citywide if the trial run is a success.

The ID chips are beneficial because they allow collection crews to maintain a more accurate record of which households are recycling, said Paul McCullagh, director of the city's public works department.

Laurel residents are required to recycle. The city has issued about 80 citations for not recycling in the four years since the practice was made mandatory, said Michelle Blair, the city's recycling coordinator. Fines begin at $25 and increase to $100.

But city officials said the new technology is not about fining people and making money.

"The main purpose is not to collect revenue, but to get people used to recycling because recycling has two basic benefits," McCullagh said. "One is that it reduces cost to the city from refuse trash dumping, and secondly, it helps improve the environment."

In neighborhoods that lack chip-embedded carts, non-recyclers stand out the old-fashioned way -- they are the ones without bins in front of their homes on pick-up day. City officials say the chips, which workers read with hand-held scanners, give them a quicker and more accurate record of who is recycling and who isn't.

Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe said the city has sent out 1,600 "courtesy notices" to homes that do not appear to be recycling. But because it can be difficult for workers to determine which bin belongs to which house, those warning letters sometimes have ended up in the wrong hands, he said.

"Some people were still recycling . . . and felt we were insulting them," Moe said.

Hurt feelings aside, Moe said the push to get soda cans, newspapers and milk jugs out of the city's trash cans is a priority. The city pays $55 per ton to dump its trash at the landfill, McCullagh said, and collected 5,958 tons of garbage from residential buildings in fiscal 2010.

Recyclable materials, on the other hand, are much cheaper for the city to process. The cost fluctuates, but, at present, Laurel does not pay to dispose of its recyclables. In better economic times, McCullagh said, the city actually received a small amount of revenue.

The high-tech bins also can be a time-saver. If work crews don't have to spend as much time figuring out which cart belongs where, and who is recycling and who isn't, they should have more time for community outreach, Blair said.

"That's the goal," she said. "I think if you can actually talk to people and have a conversation with them, you can explain the importance of it to them."

The trial period will give officials a month's worth of collection data to study. Blair said no set criteria exists for expanding the program citywide; the pilot simply allows collection crews to work out technical kinks and collect data.

The city paid about $15,000 to purchase new carts, handheld electronic readers and software for the pilot program. Implementing the program city-wide is estimated to cost about $250,000, according to Blair.

Patsy Faddis, who lives in the Greens at Patuxent neighborhood and serves as a member of her condo association, said she approves of the ID-chipped bins. If nothing else, the new system will help ensure the bins get returned to their proper owners, Faddis said.

"By putting a little bit more tabs on that, I think it's going to benefit the beauty of the community," she said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company