Waste the Waste Watchers

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Over-surveilled Brits, last seen hacking apart speed cameras, cast a wary eye upon the latest in state-sponsored spyware:

Local governments have attached microchips to some 500,000 "wheelie bins," the trashcans that residents wheel to the curb for collection. The aim, they say, is to help monitor collections and boost the national recycling rate, now among the lowest in Europe.

Small-scale revolts have erupted across the United Kingdom for months, as different localities adopt the technology. Some towns failed to mention the new feature, which is concealed under coin-sized plugs under the rims of their garbage cans.

In the coastal city of Bournemouth, 72-year-old Cyril Baker ripped the chip off his new bin the day he discovered it, then went on national television to show how he did it. Thousands of his neighbors followed his example. "It was a very emotional issue. The whole town was in an uproar," he said.

Whole thing here.

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  1. Things must be going pretty well in the UK if they can get this upset about inventory chips on trash cans.

    This being linked to recycling and that UK recycling is the lowest in the EU? LOVE IT! The mass movement I have advocated for ages is finally taking hold: if you want to recycyle my trash *buy* it from me or sort it yourself!

    I suspect the root cause of car burning season in france is the same, but it just was not reported well before.

  2. Even H&R readers should acknowledge that you’ve got to be pretty paranoid to go ripping microchips off your garbage cans. The very fact that the government acknowledges that they’re there and are easy to find and remove ought to tell you something.

  3. Dan T., members of a society that puts microchips on its garbage cans have plenty of reason to be paranoid, I’d say.

  4. In parts of Germany and Belgium, garbage trucks equipped with scales and scanners lift the tagged bins. The bins are weighed as they’re emptied, and residents are charged for each pound they send to the landfill.

    That sounds reasonable, to be honest. Do I have to turn in my libertarian card now?

  5. I should add that there’s no reason that that coudn’t be done without forcing people to have RFID chips on their garbage cans.

  6. Dan T: and even the Stasi would acknowledge that placing monitoring devices on trash cans is an absurd level of surveillance. The Brits do not feel “threatened” by the microchips so much as they feel outraged by the level of intrusiveness they represent. To debate the threat level of microchips on trash cans is to lower oneself to the government’s utilitarian level.

    The microchip offensive itself is no more threatening to the citizen than, say, the TSA’s paranoia about liquids. Both are rightly objects of contempt, not fear.

  7. Look at the symbolism. This isn’t about being angry about recycling laws, this is about telling the government they are getting fed up with the Big Brother stuff.

  8. Sir Disgrace:

    If a government charges people for trash disposal per pound, this will certainly result in folks dumping their garbage in the woods. I imagine this would cost more in the long run.

  9. “Look at the symbolism. This isn’t about being angry about recycling laws, this is about telling the government they are getting fed up with the Big Brother stuff.”

    Fed up with Big Brother? Try touching their socialized medicine or government sponsored pensions. People want to have their cake and eat it too.

  10. “Mr. Nice Guy | February 26, 2007, 12:20pm | #
    Sir Disgrace:

    If a government charges people for trash disposal per pound, this will certainly result in folks dumping their garbage in the woods. I imagine this would cost more in the long run.”

    MNG:

    This fits with limited anecdotes from two different lakes. Both have private, not government, garbage disposal (you can drive the stuff yourself to the landfill), it’s something like $50/ summer. You’d be surprised how many people do actually throw their stuff into neighboring fields, etc. Or they throw their stuff into other people’s trash cans!

  11. Here in the States, Pay As You Throw is most commonly implemented by making people buy special trash bags, or stickers for their trash bags, and only picking us waste in a designated bag. The cost of the bags is tied to the cost of landfilling one bag’s worth of trash. Recycling, on the other hand, is picked up for free, so people have an incentive to recycle, compost, reduce, or at least compact.

    Some people try to get around this by dumping their trash in the woods, but they generally get caught. It’s pretty tough to fill up a bag of household trash and not have anything therein that has your name or address on it.

  12. Joe –

    I actually know a family that doesn’t fork over the $$$ for garbage, nor do they recycle, but they actually sort their garbage for exactly that sort of thing! Since it’s a summer house, there’s less garbage (mail, for example) that’s identifiable. But isn’t that hilarious.

    (to make it even better, they bitch about “personal responsibility”, whatever the hell that means, all the time. When it applies to other people, of course)

  13. RFID chips offer a convenient way to ensure customers are billed correctly for refuse collection. I think the “promotion of recycling” angle comes from the fact that a jurisdiction can charge for solid waste removal by weight, but not for recycling. Therefore, if you move stuff from the trash can to the recycling bin, you save a couple of shillings.

    I understand the concerns about the government’s use of technology. Some people won’t use the E-Z Pass, they pay cash at the toll booth (which have recording cameras anyway.) To me, it sounds like the trash can chip is the sort of business innovation that would be boring if it were done the private sector. I really don’t think a chip on a trash container is cause for general alarm. I also think this is a little “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” for government. On one hand, government is supposed to be more like business and implement new technologies to improve efficiency. On the other hand, government is supposed to avoid any technology that will panic anyone wearing a tinfoil hat.

  14. I guess the weight is measured when the truck picks up the container. This is another perfect Government system-no way to audit, no way to determine the cost until you are charged, no recourse.

    The truck said your can weighed 862.7 pounds last Thursday-pay up! We will add it to your red-light-camera bill, for your convenience.

    (Jose-I do not wear tin-foil. Copper works much better)

  15. I prefer the method we used in Knoxville and in many parts of Northern VA, near DC:
    competing contractors who tend to charge by the load, not by the pound.

    IIRC, in Reston, VA the home owner’s association had a “fine” for not recycling, which I resisted valiantly.

  16. No Sir Disgrace, you are actually being quite libertarian.

    Imagine you owned a landfill. How would you structure the fees you charge for permitting people to dump on your property?

    The system Joe describes, pay per unit volume makes a little more sense than paying by the pound, but both are pretty good. You’d also probably charge people by whether or not they presorted the trash before deliverign it to you, or whether you had to sort it for them etc.

    The problems caused by people polluting other people’s property is quite simple. The owner of the damaged property finds who is dumping stuff on their land and sues them.

    (Incidentally, I had this very problem in the Navy, one of the in-port watch sections in the aviation department loved to dump trash in one of my fan-rooms. Of course, this lasted all of one week before we were waving incriminating envelopes and documents pulled out of the sodden mess. Did they pay us any reimbursement? Nooo. The military is such a communist organization 😉 )

    Of course, in the defense of the vandals, it appears that they are not permitted to refuse to do business with the local garbage monopoly. Thus, they are not permitted to contract with a garbage company which removes garbage for a flat fee, no questions asked.

  17. RFID chips are a sensible way to track trash. Cameras are a sensible way to moniter traffic lights and public spaces with high crime rates. Phone tapping is a sensible way to deal with terrorists.

    No one sensible would ever abuse these powers.

  18. The problem with pay-as-you-throw is that I will inevitably end up paying for someone else’s garbage. You can’t lock a garbage can, anyone who has ever lived in an area with raccoons knows it’s almost impossible to secure garbage from a sufficiently motivated animal. How on earth are you going to prevent Joe from just dumping his garbage in John’s can?

    Any tracking system you set up has the built in problem of dealing with untracked garbage: you still have to haul it away and the city likely eats the cost. Once you’re paying by the pound the system is designed to be paid as it goes and untracked garbage ceases to be an annoyance and becomes theft of services. And we all know how local governments respond when they feel someone is screwing them out of revenue. That means police investigating people who have too much untracked garbage in their cans, it means governmental authority inserting itself into yet another aspect of people’s lives.

    Beyond the privacy concerns you have a big problem in any kind of trash tracking because you then give the municipality a new revenue stream. Sure, at first the cost is based on the cost of carting a pound of garbage, then the city needs a new garbage truck so the price is raised just a little in order to pay for it, then some councilmember figures an extra few cents a week multiplied by a million or so garbage cans means enough revenue to pay for some pet project. Within a few years the system will be turning a profit and that profit will be counted upon by the city. Any actual conservation will result in increased tax, as will any increase in hauling costs. Go five years out and you’ll see the fines for trying to cheat the system go up. Then the city will treat garbage infractions the same way parking infractions are treated: as a way of earning some quick money.

  19. I actually think that a lot of laws and regulations have been passed/promulgated with the understanding that they almost never would be enforced, due to the difficulty of actually enforcing them. This made the initial do-gooders/offended group that campaigned for the laws happy, made the pols/bureaucrats that created the laws/regs happy (because they could temporarily look like they were pleasing their constituents by doing good), and not irritate people too much.

    Except now, the technology is being created to actually allow enforcement.

    Ever look at the bookshelves in a lawyer’s office? All those yards and yards of books are filled with fine print that lay out the rules we’re all supposed to be living our lives by.

    You do have them all memorized, so you can avoid breaking any of them, right?
    Because if you break any of them, you can be denied your liberty and/or property.

    Remember, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

  20. I understand the concerns about the government’s use of technology. Some people won’t use the E-Z Pass, they pay cash at the toll booth (which have recording cameras anyway.)

    An E-Z Pass can be read remotly wherever you are (unless you block or disable it) and the unique identifier can be tracked back to you, implying that you were in a certain area even if you were not.

    Paying cash only reveals that you were at the toll booth.

  21. Actually, the RFID and truck records create a far more accurate audit trail than would otherwise exist. The standardization of cans and mechanical lifting equipment reduces labor (and operating costs). There is also a range of reasonable weight for a given can size. I’m not sure the truck would lift an 862.7-pound can… and it did, I’m sure the operator would remember the lead shot you were dumping.

    Any technology can be abused. If a customer doesn’t want municipal/government trash service because of the RFID chips, he or she should be free to decline that service. Full disclosure/free choice. That is difference between a chip on your trash can and a tap on your phone.

  22. I can see a crime novel in your future, Guy… The case where an innocent victim is framed by an evil person planting an EZ-Pass on him (or her).

  23. “To me, it sounds like the trash can chip is the sort of business innovation that would be boring if it were done the private sector. I really don’t think a chip on a trash container is cause for general alarm.”

    The essential difference between the private sector and the public sector is that private firms don’t have SWAT teams at their disposal to enforce contracts.

  24. Jose said: “Any technology can be abused. If a customer doesn’t want municipal/government trash service because of the RFID chips, he or she should be free to decline that service. Full disclosure/free choice. That is difference between a chip on your trash can and a tap on your phone.”

    Yeah, except for the fact that in many jurisdiction you pay for the pickup even if you refuse it or aren’t eligible. The city I live in pays for it’s trash collection from property taxes. I live in a large condo complex that is required to pay for private garbage collection. I am, in effect, opting out of the system. Do I get a property tax break? Of course not.

    It isn’t free choice if you have to pay for it either way, especially when the money is taken at gunpoint.

  25. William,

    “How on earth are you going to prevent Joe from just dumping his garbage in John’s can?”

    That’s what the Special Purple Bags are for. You fill up the trash bag, you tie off the trash bag, you put the trash bag out on pick-up day. This works much better than a the bin system, which has the flaws you note.

  26. If they would just chip those killer bees then we would know where they are too!

  27. Maybe special bags work fine in smaller areas, but in the city I live in there isn’t really a “trash day.” Your trash gets picked up when it gets picked up, generally you can guess it down to a few days, but you ccouldn’t set a calendar to it. Worse is the real public health problem that not having trashcans in an urban area presents. We have rats, we have hordes of pidgeons, we have stray animals of all kinda, we have opossoms and raccoons. If its december in Chicago and you leave your trash out in the open you’ve got maybe an hour before it’s ripped open and spread all over the place.

    More importantly, maybe you have someone to store your trash if you have a house or a garage, but I only have about 1000 square feet. My wife and I produce maybe 2 bags of garbage a week, where do you propose I put the raw chicken trimmings from tuesday evening if garbage is collected tuesday morning?

  28. oops, formating error, that was my response to Joe, not a message from him.

  29. Big-J,

    I agree, you need to be know when the trash is going to be picked up for it to work. Most places are on a schedule.

  30. “How on earth are you going to prevent Joe from just dumping his garbage in John’s can?”

    Quite the conundrum, that.

  31. Here in the States, Pay As You Throw is most commonly implemented by making people buy special trash bags, or stickers for their trash bags, and only picking us waste in a designated bag. The cost of the bags is tied to the cost of landfilling one bag’s worth of trash. Recycling, on the other hand, is picked up for free, so people have an incentive to recycle, compost, reduce, or at least compact.

    The system joe describes is in place in Ithaca, NY. When I lived there in the early ’90s, they had two types of tags — something like 15lb. and 25lb. — which you could subscribe to and receive in the mail or buy at town hall, Wegmans, etc. You tied a tag around your bag and put it out on collection day — no bins. Its main advantage was to make the itinerant student population bear some of the cost of the services they used. If a bag had no tie, the trashmen wouldn’t pick it up, which resulted in the landlords harassing their tenants to tow the line. I don’t know of anyone ever sorting their trash to evade identification. Too much work.

    I actually worked at a company run by some out-of-town blockheads who hated the artsy lefty population of Ithaca and thus refused to recycle (which was free). I was forever trying to convince them they could cut the weight of their trash bags — and hence their costs — simply by putting their Snapple bottles in the recycling bin. At least one of them refused out of general pigheadedness.

    It worked well though the system I enjoy now — either take your own stuff to the dump and pay $4 per load, or pay a private removal service — is certainly superior (OTOH, college students, being the laziest animals on the planet, would prolly much rather wallow in their own filth before ever climbing into a car to take their refuse to the dump). The Ithaca system never grated against me because it was a pay-for-use government service, which is certainly better than a pay-for-everybody-else’s-use system.

    Anyway, I suggest that everyone here explaining in great detail how such a pay-by-weight system could never work should maybe tell us why it DOES work in Ithaca.

  32. tow the line

    “Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line.”

    From a smart dude.

  33. Of course one has to ask why the government is involved in such a waste of time as recycling (usually) is.

  34. BTW, a more appropriate title for this write up might have been:

    Who Watches The Waste Watchers?

  35. William, I would suppose one of the potential advantages of the RFID technology is that one could charge those people who use the service and not charge those who do not. Again, if one lives in a jurisdiction where the government provides services, I think it helpful if the government tries to use technology to make these services more cost-effective. Unfortunately, there is always the risk that the RFID trash can chips are a precursor to the UN invasion of America.

    Picking up trash is a pain in the ass. People forget to put trash on the curbside and then they call and claim the trash was “missed.” People don’t secure trash bags or cans and crap blows everywhere… mostly onto the yards of people who do secure trash. People put nonrecyclables in recycling bins. They dump hazardous waste or bulk trash or construction debris in or around community dumpsters. Frankly, there has to be a better way to oppress a people than by picking up after them.

  36. When I was a kid, we always lived in small towns without any garbage pickup. We had to drive our crap to the dump and pay a small fee to unload it there.

    Being equestrians and outdoorspeople, we never dumped our shit in the woods. Actually, if I ever caught someone doing something like that, I’d be sure to write down their license plate number and report them to the police. And I hate the police. Of course, I’d have a hard time not wanting to shoot them with my .45 for fucking up mother nature, but they wouldn’t be worth the attorney’s fees.

  37. Its main advantage was to make the itinerant student population bear some of the cost of the services they used.

    What, passing along such costs in the rent isn’t enough??

  38. Maybe you’ve already seen this, but Britain is apparently up there with Russia, China, Singapore and Malaysia for most watched society award. And all the average Brit has to say is “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve nothing to fear!”

    http://www.privacyinternational.org/article.shtml?cmd%5B347%5D=x-347-545269&als%5Btheme%5D=Privacy and Human Rights

    -Juliet
    London UK/Cambridge MA

  39. Rhywun,

    See, that’s what happens where I live now in a town with DIY garbage removal (and two colleges): the landlord hires a service and includes the fees in the rent. If I understand the course of events in Ithaca correctly, they had city garbage removal but then realized the kids were free ridin’, so they instituted the pay-by-weight tag system.

    I don’t understand why any place has govt removal service because DIY is the easiest thing in the world. The point of my original post was just to say that pay-by-weight systems exist, I’ve had first-hand experience with one and though doubtlessly inefficient, it worked as intended. The forests and glens of Ithaca were not strewn with garbage as some previous posters imagined would be but were, in fact, pristine.

    Ronald Bailey disclosure: While an effort is made to utilize standard American spelling, my efforts are sometimes imperfect. My grammar lacks consistency. Sometimes I use words incorrectly or just make up new ones. My punctuation is idiosyncratic. My tense changes can be sudden and jarring, and I very frequently mix metaphors. The sobriety of the author is neither assumed nor implied.

  40. I guess there is no chance that the government could decide that they can profile the weight of trash to identify potential terrorists, drug-dealers, etc.

  41. Heh. I love watching Americans bitch about recycling, trash sorting, etc.

    Go live in Tokyo for a while. Then you’d understand why such systems end up coming into existence. We’ve got 20 million people in the Tokyo-Yokohama area. Sort the burnables from the non-burnables, pay disposal fees for the large things (dai-gomi)….

    In a lot of towns, particularly in the poorer sections, there was always an unofficial recycling going on–furniture would be put out to be disposed of, people would go out for an evening walk, and if you stumbled across something that looked good, you grabbed it and took it home with you. I knew quite a few foreigners who managed to funish their entire apartments this way.

  42. Japan has been a police state for a couple of hundred years, so the people there are used to taking unlimited amounts of crap from the government.

  43. grumpy – I live in a neighbourhood like that in Tempe, AZ. It’s not exactly a poor area, but there are a lot of street people that mill around nearby that come through, so you can leave a TV or something out in front of your house and expect someone to come by and grab it unless it’s a complete piece of garbage. Come to think of it, there’s places like that all over Phoenix…usually where a nicer neighbourhood is nonetheless close to a lot of street people or lower income housing.

  44. Jose:

    Yes, one of the advantages of RFID is that one could charge people different rates depending on use. The problem with that idea is that I doubt things would end up that way. Any way you cut it trash collection will end up costing more. As I said, the area in which I live has some people who use the municipal service and some who do not, but everyone pays anyway. Targeting service and charging for it separately doesn’t mean the property taxes that currently pay for it will go down, it just means that people who choose to use the service will pay even more. You know better than that.

    More importantly, can the hyperbole, will ya? I didn’t suggest that RFID chips were paving the way for a UN invasion, nor did I call the system oppressive. This isn’t about oppression, its about the constant greed that local governments have.

    I pay between 9 and 10 cents on the dollar in sales tax (depending on if I spend money downtown or not), about fourty cents a gallon in state and local gasoline taxes (then sales tax on top of that), I have to buy a registration sticker from the city as a tax on my car, a plate from the state, a percent and a half property tax (to pay for garbage collection I’m not allowed to have and terrible schools for children I don’t have). Then, like everyone else I know, I get half a dozen parking tickets a year because the city views them as revenue (did you know that you can get towed on many diagonal streets for parking between the hours of 3 am and 7 am between september 31st and april 1st?). Theres red-light cameras all over with short yellows. You’ll forgive me if I’m a little less than enthused when municipalities say they need more money.

  45. there was always an unofficial recycling going on

    It’s the same here in NYC – anything (and I mean ANYTHING) lying loose on the curb is likely to be gone within an hour.

    If I understand the course of events in Ithaca correctly, they had city garbage removal but then realized the kids were free ridin’, so they instituted the pay-by-weight tag system.

    Again, I don’t understand how the kids are “free ridin'” in a government system, which is paid for by property taxes, which are built into the rent. What am I missing?

    My guess is, they probably weren’t happy with the *amount* of garbage the kids were producing and sought a way to reduce it.

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