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RFID Tags on Recycle Bins Help Laurel, Md., Track Participation in Recycling Mandate

In a pilot program to preserve the environment and save money, Laurel, Md.'s public works department deploys handheld scanners and tags to make sure residents follow city's recycling mandate.

Public works officials in Laurel, Md., don't like wasting money -- especially not on dumping trash that could have been recycled.

That's why the city made recycling a requirement for city residents living in single-family homes and townhouses, and encourages it at apartment complexes. That's also why its public works department recently installed radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on recycle bins to track recycling habits.

Laurel's high-tech approach is part of a pilot program in the city's Greens of Patuxent neighborhood, in which recycling crews use handheld scanners to read the tags attached on the bins and record their data. With software and technology developed by Rehrig Pacific Co., each ID tag has been linked to an address, so the city can keep track of residents who recycle and those who don't.

Typically noncompliance leads to a courtesy notice, which can then lead to citations of $25 to $100. But the city wants to avoid fines. None will be issued during the program, which the city hopes will help educate rather than penalize the public, said Michele Blair, the city's recycling coordinator.

The idea of scanning recycle bins has roots elsewhere in a program called RecycleBank, which tracks how many pounds a household recycles and offers incentives, such as coupons and discounts. Co-founded in 2005 by Ron Gonen, the program runs in more than 75 cities and in the UK.

But Laurel stands out with this pilot program because it's one of the few cities that have made recycling mandatory. Pending the pilot's success, Blair said, officials plan to expand the program citywide and install scanners directly onto the trucks. The expansion would cost about $250,000.

Track and Save

It costs the city $59 a ton to dump trash, and garbage trucks would typically carry eight tons, adding up to "hundreds of thousands of dollars a year," said Paul McCullagh, director of the city's public works department.

For a long time, Laurel has recognized recycling as a solution for saving money as well as preserving the environment. By reducing the amount of waste buried in landfills or burned, McCullagh said, the city could cut down on airborne contaminants and seepage into waters and streams.

Years ago, an outside contractor handled Laurel's recycling program. But with the rise of single-stream collection (no more separate compartments), the city took over. Public works officials purchased a garbage truck and painted it green. But it was tough to manually monitor which households had been complying with the ordinance, McCullagh said.

"It was hard to track," he said. "Some people would misplace their bin and take someone else's. Some would claim their bin was stolen. Now we can easily find missing bins with the scanning device because they're connected to an address."

As of Thursday, July 1, the pilot was moving forward and the response has been positive so far, Blair said. She received a call from a resident who was concerned that the recycling crew didn't pick up her bin.

"I was able to download the information and tell her not only that they picked it up, but the time they picked it up," Blair said. "That was pretty neat."