Cameras, RFID Chips Are Tracking the Contents of Your Garbage

To ensure compliance with recycling laws, municipalities are recording and storing info on citizens' trash.


In the name of ensuring compliance with local recycling laws, a number of cities are

Big Brother Grouch is Watching Your Trash
Flickr/Joe Haupt

 using cameras, RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) chips, and even deputizing trash collectors with the task of judging a person's garbage-sorting techniques as legal or worthy of a fine. 

In a press release last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned that "automated garbage monitoring raises very serious privacy concerns" and "any program involving the government's systematic monitoring of citizens crosses a line."

The goals of such garbage surveillance techniques range from ensuring regular use of recycling containers, rewarding compliant recyclers, and "flagging" non-compliant recyclers for more thorough inspections, which could lead to citations and fines.

In Wisconsin, two cities are using garbage truck cameras in conjunction with the RFID chips:

Garbage trucks scan the chips installed in each bin when emptying carts, the cameras monitor the materials being dumped, and transmit a detailed collection history back to the company in order to determine if the right materials are coming out of each container. This information is—when deemed necessary—used to levy fines against residents who improperly sort their waste.

In Seattle, a group of residents is suing the city over new policies that make sanitation workers into de facto garbage detectives, tasked with judging the contents of a trash container. As reported in the New York Times:

If, on inspection, more than 10 percent of a garbage can's contents should have properly been in another kind of bin, the trash collector can pin a bright red tag on the offender's receptacle. A primary goal of the policy is to keep people from throwing food and recyclable materials into trash cans.

The Times also reports that the Seattle lawsuit has made public a training manual which instructs trash collectors to "use good judgment" and to eyeball each trash can by "visually dividing a can into 10 segments." One of the plaintiffs in the Seattle case, a supporter of recycling laws, says "An admirable goal does not justify a bad policy."

Since we're all likely committing "three felonies a day," the concern that we might be incriminating ourselves simply by failing to obsessively rummage through our trash before bringing it to the curb is hardly irrational.

Three felonies and a $100 fine!
Flickr/Hitty Evie

At The Intercept, Jenna McLaughlin writes:

Police have used trash to gather evidence on suspects for years. In a 2010 issue of Police Chief, a trade magazine for law enforcement, one article urges officers to use trash cans that are "moved from a house and to the street for disposal" as "fair game for anyone — even the police — to take it away for inspection." The authors of the article suggest that people very often leave behind incriminating evidence in their trash unsuspectingly, and have no reasonable expectation of privacy once the trash hits the curb.

If law enforcement officers could access the garbage truck cameras, they would not even have to visit the property and seize the trash.

In 2002, journalists at the Portland, OR-area Willamette Week pushed back on law enforcement's insistence that (despite a judge's ruling to the contrary) they have the right to a warrantless search of anyone's garbage for incriminating evidence, by staging their own unauthorized search through the trash cans of the mayor, district attorney and police chief.

In much the same way that tracking a person's digital metadata can be as revealing as recording their phone conversations, the Willamette Week found that by going through a person's garbage, "we are reverse-engineering a grimy portrait of another human being, reconstituting an identity from his discards, probing into stuff that is absolutely, positively none of our damn business."

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  1. “any program involving the government’s systematic monitoring of citizens crosses a line.”

    But, enough about the IRS.

    1. “But enough about the NSA.”

      “But enough about the TSA.

      “But enough about the FBI.”

      “But enough about the CIA.”

      “But enough about…..”

      1. Oh I beg to differ!

      2. It’s enough all the way down!

  2. Another reason we live “in the country” on a private road with private garbage collection (and a choice of several providers!!).

    I’m just hoping to die before the cold, dead hand of gummint reaches my township, cause it seems inevitable.

    Maybe my kids will have to move to SOMALIA some day.

    1. Another reason I live in a large apartment building where nobody can pin my garbage on me.

      1. “You’ll never pin it on me, coppers!!!”

      2. “Smile!”

        1. OK, so I’ll get a ski mask.

      3. Another reason I live in a large apartment building where nobody can pin my garbage on me.

        Depends. People have been busted by simply reading the addresses on the tossed-out envelopes or magazines.

        1. I do recycle paper because it takes almost no effort. Stuff like jars of peanut butter or mayonnaise is where I draw the line.

          1. I no longer rinse. My water bill is high enough.

            1. We let our dogs “rinse” – they especially love peanut butter jars – HOURS of entertainment for them

  3. Freest country in the world….

    1. Once upon a time, maybe.

      1. Do you think there are freer ones today? I suppose a few are in some ways. But it seems like maybe the ebbing tide of liberty beaches all ships.

        1. But it seems like maybe the ebbing tide of liberty beaches all ships.

          I think this may be the case, unfortunately.

          1. I have come to this conclusion. That’s when I started getting depressed – lately, we’ve moved so far…..but I don’t see anyplace better in the aggregate (for me). Some people are off to Costa Rica or whatever. I don’t trust that situation (or any other) enough to chuck it all and head out.

            Seems like the whole world is just starting to suck more and more in terms of contracting liberty….

            1. It seems like the US is still a magnet for the rest of the world. That tells me there ain’t nowhere better, overall.

              1. Yeah, which is depressing to me, cause it’s starting to really suck here…

              2. Speaking of magnets – thanks for the segue, btw – couldn’t a guy run a big speaker magnet around his trash can and kill the rfid tags?

            2. Seems like the whole world is just starting to suck more and more in terms of contracting liberty….

              It’s not. Most of the world is getting freer. Outside of America, economic freedom is gaining, albeit at what seems like a slow pace. (This slow pace is very fast in historical terms however).

              1. Wake me when someone passes the US. OH, NEVER MIND, CAUSE A) IT WON’T HAPPEN AND B) EVEN IF IT DID, I’LL BE LONG, LONG DEAD BY THEN.

                Your optimism is cute, though, Cytotoxic!

                1. Pretty sure the ZEDE will. The Republic of Texas?. Please stop pretending you know for a fact that it ‘won’t happen’. Your sad-sackery is tiresome.

            3. I think it bears saying that “on paper” the US is better. But…

              1. Considering the SCOTUS is hell-bent on ignoring and side-stepping said paper.
              2. Other nations don’t have the resources or incentives to harass the local populace to the extent they may.

              We MAY not be the most free place on Earth anymore.

        2. Many are a good deal freer in practice than their Capitol Clique would prefer?…

  4. Sure, sanitation workers are going to take the time to “visually divide the bag into 10 sections” to estimate the percentage of recyclables v. trash in each container. These people have obviously never seen the guys actually pick up trash on their street.

    1. This.

      Not to mention the forthcoming increases in corruption and littering.

    2. “It looked like there was a lot of plastic things in the bag.”
      “Can you be more specific?”
      “It looked like there was a real lot…”

      1. “What’s it cost for you to say that my garbage is divided up OK?”

        Problem solved!

        1. Yeah, just be generous at Christmas.

            1. “…and no problems with #217 again this year!”

              1. They’re just going to outsource the inspection to someone sitting at city hall eventually. It’s trivial to send the photos over in real time.

  5. If, on inspection, more than 10 percent of a garbage can’s contents should have properly been in another kind of bin, the trash collector can pin a bright red tag on the offender’s receptacle.

    Just a doggone minute, there.

    Is that 10 percent by number of items, by weight, or by volume?

    1. Whatever’s most incriminating! Duh!

    2. Doesn’t matter, as no actual checking will be done by the workers. Then when the management complains about the unusual lack of violators, they will randomly slap red stickers on 10% of the containers, and it will be up to the people receiving stickers to prove compliance.

      1. I actually have worked with a few who “solved” their non-compliance issues by doing things like you’ve described.

      2. What WTF said

    3. “Is that 10 percent by number of items, by weight, or by volume?” YES!

  6. Garbage trucks … transmit a detailed collection history back to the company in order to determine if the right materials are coming out of each container.

    Ha! Everything looks the same when it’s in a *bag*. Oh, wait. Bags have been banned. Never mind.

  7. Penn and Teller’s Bullshit episode on recycling was one of my favorites. Unfortunately most people are unaware that their local recycling program is actually counterproductive and is actually a local jobs and revenue program. The best part is a lot of the recycling is so inefficient that it is actually environmentally unfriendly. But hey, it makes people feel good… and that’s what really matters.

    1. Seems like metal and sometimes some plastics are worth recycling, but the rest really isn’t. It’s cleaner and less energy intensive just to make new glass, paper, etc. Though using old bottles as aggregate in pavement seems like a good idea and makes roads look cool.

      1. The only benefit to glass and paper recycling is that it can save landfill space.

        1. The best recycling program I have seen is from TFC Recycling. They collect recyclables and trash. The recyclables are collected in bulk (non-sorted) and then processed at a semi-automated facility. They use a portion of the profits from the recycling to reduce the cost of trash collection to the end-user.

          Because they’re bidding on multi-year contracts, they run the risk of being caught in a deflation cycle and low commodities prices while their bid remains fixed. Can be perilous.

      2. Tons of stuff is worth recycling. Like clothing, and dishes.

        1. Too bad most people don’t have a say in the matter.

          Me – I toss anything that takes more than a cursory effort to clean. Come after me, mofos.

          1. Apartment living ftw!

          2. So what you’re saying is, “COME AT ME, BRO!”

        2. Yeah. Though a lot of that is reuse more than recycling. Do they still make paper from recycled cotton? I was thinking of the usual garbage recycling stuff.

          1. I just like to give people a hard time about recycling, because fuck that shit, but I do do laundry.

    2. I like to remind people that one of Bloomberg’s first acts in office was to cancel recycling of certain materials because it was a waste of money.

      1. Well, that’s because he was a Rethuglican.

  8. Over/Under of when someone gets killed by the cops in a recycling investigation?
    Why should interactions with the garbage police be any safer than other police gang interactions?
    My bet is within a year.

    1. “I’m a Garbage Cop. I carry a raccoon.”

      1. I think normal cops are rabid enough as it is.

    2. Hard to say since a convenient disposal method will be close by.

      1. But which bin?

        1. Food, obs.

  9. What was the reason again for having a separate barrel for food? In case the “sanitation engineers” needed snacks?

    1. Reducing landfill volume, I think.

      1. That doesn’t hold up. The food will decompose and lose massive amounts of volume anyway.

        1. I didn’t say it was a valid reason.

        2. There is probably good reason to avoid putting stuff that will lose a lot of volume in landfills, though, if you want to build something on top of it eventually.

          I think landfills are great. Just imagine how interesting they will be when someone digs them up in a million years. Assuming they don’t get mined for raw materials much sooner.

          1. , if you want to build something on top of it eventually.

            I thought we only built stuff on top of Indian burial grounds.

            1. Indian burial grounds

              Yeah – I think all those are used up though, so…now we’re forced to use inferior land 🙁 I haz a sad

        3. Food doesn’t really decompose in a landfill – most of the air is pressed out when they pack it down with tractors – most of the bacteria that cause food to decomp are aerobic organisms. . .

    2. None really. That’s pure feelgood crap.

      1. There are reasons. Not necessarily good ones, but they do give reasons.

        I must say that the resulting compost is pretty good stuff.

        1. It’s good if the customer wants to retain and use it, which they’re free to do on their own. Otherwise, those programs don’t really reduce disposal costs by any significant amount.

  10. Just more proof, if you still needed it, of how psychotic the modern left is.

  11. No sort recycling has been a thing for a long time.

    I like to recycle because it pleases me aesthetically. But I know a lot of it is inefficient and pointless. When stuff is worth recycling, people are willing to pay for it.

    1. No sort recycling has been a thing for a long time.

      I’ve always wondered why they don’t have machines to sort my garbage. If that’s what you’re talking about, where the hell is it?

      1. There are machines that will sort recyclables. And some that will even separate recyclables from garbage. Lots of commercial trash companies do it.

      2. Seattle has non-sort recycling and has for 20 years or more. Everything goes in the big blue bin.

        1. Wasn’t there some story about how some localities keep ‘sort recycling’ because they want their minions to be invested in the process?

          1. I’m actually kind of surprised that NYC is not paying union goons to sort all our garbage for us. Imagine all those living-wage jobs!

  12. Obviously the solution is to label your containers “Contents are *not* from [your address]”.

    1. Or — dare I say it? — run everything through a woodchipper first.

  13. The Stasi would weep with envy at the Total Surveillance State that the US has become.

    I wonder, this RFID chip, where is it, and how well armored is it?

    1. They probably won’t take your trash if the RFID is disabled or removed.

      1. But can you alter its info without them knowing?

        1. They’re probably using cheap pre-programmed ones, so it’s unlikely. However, you could always just poke their central registry for vulnerabilities…

        2. Not realistically as it’ll probably be a read/only rfid.

  14. I will admit, on occasion, to….knowing of a friend….who deposited certain waste in the containers of apartment buildings when there was too much for their own garbage collector to take at one time, or perhaps hitting a dumpster behind a restaurant or grcery store to dispose of dried up paint in cans, cause pain-in-the-ass.

    At least I’ve heard of such things….

    Ergo – what could POSSIBLY go worgn with the RIF scheme?

    1. A friend? Sure, Jeff. Somebody will be by tomorrow with your fine.

  15. Oh, also, I’ve heard it told that some hooligans on occasion do a drive by and pitch garbage into the bed of an innocent bystander’s pickup truck. Especially someone they don’t like.

    Some are really ballsy and deposit it into the passenger compartment of an innocent’s car. Especially if, etc. etc.

    So I’ve heard, anyway.

  16. OK, now maybe I’m a grouch (hell, I KNOW I’m a grouch) but let me propose where this is inevitably going;

    The regulations will be devised by a bunch of healthy adults, sitting in air-conditioned comfort, and advised by environmental scolds and/or trash industry people who want to get the most work possible done by the customer. They will be enforced by marginally literate drones with limited imagination. Sooner or later some senior citizen who can’t understand the regulations (because she reads English, but not gibberish) or who is physically incapable of following them will end up getting fined eleventh-jillion dollars, the story will hit the cable news shows, and somebody’s head will roll.

    Now, answer me this question; why can’t the elected officials who are backing this idiocy see that coming?

    1. They’re short-sighted. They don’t have that new fangled future vision.

      Besides, this time it will be different. And by different I mean people will be cheering that the old lady got fined.

      1. This is what they’ll be saying: “Old people just need to die! SS is running out as well. Why not just make Soylent Green out of them?”

  17. Just go throw a couple of paint cans in the mayor’s recycle bin on trash day, call the local news Problem Solver Team and watch hilarity ensue.

    1. I like the cut of your jib.

    2. You really ARE a hero!

      *gazes, starstruck*

    3. Throw in a few Playboy’s too.

      1. Or some German porn.

  18. I am waiting to see what trashmonster says…

  19. No one in Seattle has yet explained to me the due process that occurs if your garbage is found to be not in compliance.

    Sanitation worker (one of the higher paid unskilled workers in the city, coming in at around $55,000 a year) eyeballs your garbage, decides that more than 10% is compostable material, he cites you. Your garbage is then taken in the truck– evidence goes with it.

    You respond “No it wasn’t”. What’s the process to prove that your garbage contained less than 10% compostables?

    1. Indeed, hasn’t that sanitation work just destroyed evidence? A crime?

  20. If your RFID chip breaks, they’ll have to replace your bin. Personal experience tells me that this will rarely happen.

    It will be problematic for them to just refuse to pick up the broken bins. Especially if you break a few of your neighbors’…

    I suspect the reader on the mechanical arm won’t last long, anyway.

    My location is simple. You get one trash bin and one recycling bin. My motivation to recycle is that it frees up room in the trash bin that will otherwise overflow.

  21. Oh, and the recycling bin is also where I can put lawn waste. Win win.

  22. You notice that nobody seems to be saying to these people; “You idiots can’t even keep the roads in repair, what makes you think you can make a Rube Goldberg system like this work?”

    Or are all the cities contemplating this idiocy perfectly up to date on road maintenance?

  23. Sounds like a War On Garbage.

    Expect litter to increase.

  24. How would “garbage privacy” be guaranteed in libertopia?

  25. All the technology has existed for well over 20 years to fully sort out Municipal solid waste (MSW). Mix in raw sewage and that’s just more stuff to sort and clean.

    If all the techniques and technologies were combined, MSW and raw sewage could go in one end of the plant and out the other there’d be pure water, metals and electricity, with the option to sort out various plastics, glass and mixed chemicals and oils to sell for refinery feedstock.

    Start by pulverizing the MSW and mixing with the sewage. Ordinary magnets pull out ferrous metals while eddy current generators push out other metals. With the metal out, combine the waste with a fire hardening clay into pellets.

    Those are the fuel for the very high temperature, cyclonic burners. The exhaust from which is used to dry the pellets.

    The burned out ceramic pellets can be used for landfill or construction aggregate.

    1. Pure water is the easy part. Get it from the pellet dryer and the burner exhaust with a process that uses different temperatures to condense water and other volatiles at different temperatures. Distilling water uses a similar process to vaporize and condense anything more volatile than water, then it changes temperature to vaporize water, leaving behind anything less volatile.

      Smell wouldn’t be a problem with the MSW being dumped into an enclosed area through which the air for the burners is drawn. Any smelly vapors get drawn in and burned up.

      The entire plant could be fully automated, with garbage trucks and trains dumping in, and trucks or trains hauling away anything salvaged instead of being burned.

  26. what happens when visitors can’t figure out the heiroglyphics on the lids and sides of the stupid cans to know just what to put where? I spend time in Seattle, Portland, and surrounding cities, and have tried to figure out what can go in which bins…. but their markings and cartoons are so arcane as to be ambiguous.

    My own practise with regards rubbish is simple.Anything flamable or burnable goes in one place to be used to help heat the place in winter. ALL compostible, degradable, etc, stuff goes out to the compsost heap. Any metals and most plastics are separated and will eventually be taken in to the recyclers for casn. That leaves the rest of the plastics (which are very low in quantity because of the way I shop… I quite buyng produce from Costco decades back, theirpackaging is insanely wasteful. Getting palletised goods delivered, I always requiest STRAP but DO NOT WRAP. I have no trach pickup service, and deal with it all simpl and easily. And that dealing begins at the vendors from which I get my provender.

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