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Trash collection goes high tech to promote recycling

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Paying only for the trash you throw out isn't a new concept, but now the technology has caught up.

Paying only for the trash you throw out isn't a new concept, according to David Wyld, a Southeastern Louisiana University business professor. But now, the technology has caught up. An expert in radio frequency identification (RFID), Wyld says the technology could be used to increase recycling rates -- as consumers are charged for throwing out more trash.

What's the problem you were trying to tackle?

It's both sides of the trash equation. It's not just that we're producing more trash, but we also need to encourage recycling. There is an effort for waste management companies and municipalities to make this a fairer business model in terms of how you appropriately charge customers for the service you're providing. The Pay As You Throw model to charge you based on what you expend in trash is enticing for the service provider, but also for the customer. It is a fairer model in that I'll be charged only for what I throw out. What's the actual volume? This is a merging of technology, business and environmental interests.

What is radio frequency identification (RFID) and how could this solve the problem?

It is a technology better than barcodes. It enables you to identify specific objects, rather than just classes of objects. In a supermarket, for example, a loaf of bread from a particular bakery is going to have a barcode identifying that type of bread. An RFID tag gives you the specific identification for that loaf of bread. You can identify that specific loaf from the time it is made to when it gets into the consumer's hands.

Barcodes would just identify a class of trash cans. With the RFID tag, because it can identify the individual trash can, waste management companies can find out which of their users is putting out that specific can. As the trash can is lifted up and emptied into the garbage truck, the amount of material weight is measured. If you have a standardized can design, you know the weight of the container. It's a simple equation. They can identify that John Smith on September 27 threw out 40 pounds of trash in that specific can.

It gives the service provider business intelligence to charge based on the customer. Rather than a flat fee, they can charge based on the pounds of refuse you throw out. That's Pay As You Throw. You're paying only for what you're throwing out. For the service provider, it's a more intelligent business model. Customers are not abusing the system. There is a built-in penalty. The more I throw out, the more I pay. Hence, the more I recycle, the better off I am because I'm not going to be charged for that additional service.

You mentioned Pay As You Throw. That's not new, right?

It's been around in various forms. My research showed that it had been tried in terms of measuring trash. But it didn't encourage honest behavior on the citizen's part. If I'm being charged for two cans a week and I'm going over that, I'm going to stuff my trash into my neighbor's can. There are communities where you have to buy and use their specific trash bag. They're charging you for the trash service based on the bag price. The company sets the bag price high enough to drive revenue from that model. If I'm the consumer, I'm going to stuff those things as full as possible. Pay As You Throw makes sense, but the technology had to get to a price point to where it was practical.

What's next for this project?

I'm in contact with companies that are interested in this. There's a lot of interest in Europe, more so than the United States. If local governments mandate its use, then naturally there's going to be a much faster forced uptake of this. On the recycling end, it's very entrepreneurial in terms of rewarding citizens for positive environmental behavior. There are a lot of avenues and creative things being done. In two to three years, we're going to see much wider applications of ideas like this, not just in waste management but a lot of other facets of our lives.

Read Wyld's blog.

Photo: David Wyld

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure