Microchips Among Us 

New trash and recycling carts will track owner usage

As 170,000 new trash and recycling carts are delivered throughout Ada County, each household receives a tracking device for monitoring weekly waste habits.

"They all have RFID chips in the handles," said Rachele Klein, a manager for Allied Waste Services of Idaho. "[It] helps us keep track of our inventory."

RFID stands for radio frequency identification technology, microchips that can be implanted into a variety of products, mainly for tracking purposes. Although some chips are thinner than a human hair, the cart chips are about 3 inches long and a half-inch wide. Because chips now average just 7 to 15 cents apiece more businesses are using them.

Each new cart is married to the address to which it is delivered, Klein said. Starting early next year, the carts will be scanned during weekly pickups by hand-held or truck-mounted scanners, which cost $500 to $2,000. Drivers can then make sure the carts are at the proper address.

But the trash hauler has a more important interest in RFID technology than can swapping: the potential to find lost money at the end of the trash line. By some estimates, the technology could locate millions of dollars in lost revenue throughout the county.

"The RFID chips ... will ensure that the customer billing accounts are more accurate, since we have information on the size of the cart [48, 65 or 95 gallons] and the number of carts at each address," said Catherine Chertudi, Boise environmental programs manager.

Earlier this fall, Monroe County, Miss., identified 600 locations where residents were receiving pickup services without being billed, according to the RFID Journal.

"Those unbilled pickups were the main challenge the county faced before implementing the system," said Martin Demers, CEO of Canada-based Fleetmind Solutions, the same company providing "smart-trash" technology to Ada County.

Demers told Boise Weekly that a much larger number of unpaid bills could be found in Ada County. Monroe County dealt with only 8,600 carts and found 600 nonpaying households. Comparatively, Ada County is using 170,000 carts and could find as many as 12,000 unpaid locations.

This lost-and-found money is a potentially enormous amount. The average household trash and recycling bill is about $13.80, according to Vince Trimboli, Boise Public Works Department spokesman. Multiply that average bill by 12,000 and the monthly total equals about $165,000--the annual totals almost $2 million. But Trimboli does not foresee Boise finding any lost pot of gold.

"That was probably some rural county in Mississippi. I don't think we have that many people slipping through the crack here," he said.

Any such newfound revenues would go to the city or county, depending on the location of the offending household, minus a collection fee to Allied Waste, Trimboli said.

Fleetmind has other ways to find lost money through RFID. It will monitor household service levels to determine if residents earn the various discounts they are claiming.

"We will be able to tell how often this house is, or is not, recycling," said Klein, adding that the same data collection will occur for trash. "Some people are snowbirds, and ask for a seasonal suspension."

Boise offers a $4 monthly discount to households that recycle, and other discounts for people who claim to not use their pickup services temporarily, as in extended vacations.

Klein would not estimate the company's losses from these discounts, but said they are a concern. She stressed the priority of Fleetmind is to offer a better service to its clients and staff, but that better service will take some time to implement.

"We will roll this out in stages," she said.

After the carts are inventoried and exchanged for different sizes with Allied Waste, they will be scanned during routine pickups.

Microchipped trash cans may sound new, but the technology has been used across the pond for years.

"You can say you're one of the first cities in the U.S. to use it, but certainly Europe has been way ahead of us," said Demers.

He explained that Dresden, Germany, was the first city to use smart-trash technology in 1994 to track and weigh its trash.

"The benefits have been a way to seriously reduce trash and increase recycling," he said, because the weights are used to determine a household's bill. Allied Waste does not plan to weigh local trash or recycling here, at this time.

The possibilities of RFID technology for household usage are unlimited. Technology has already been developed for smart medicine cabinets to track medications, and for smart refrigerators to notify consumers when their milk is expired.

The technology could potentially be used to inventory microchipped retail items thrown out in the trash.

"That was not our intent," said Bruno Gagnon, a Fleetmind director. "Our scanner can only be configured to read one generation of tag."

Gagnon explained that Fleetmind only uses scanners designed to read the numbering system of the chips in their carts: "It's a fairly complicated number."

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