Cities are jumping the gun by remotely monitoring recycling

Cleveland plans to implement curbside monitored recycling, which is lauded by many cities — such as Arlington, Va. — as a great success. But is the success solely because of the surveillance, or is it also because of the bigger recycling bins that come along with the surveillance? I’m thinking it’s the latter; people don’t need to be monitored in order to recycle — they need bigger recycling bins.

With monitored curbside recycling, the city remotely checks how often the recycling bins are used, use that data to determine who isn’t recycling a lot, and then check their garbage cans and fine them if the trash has more than 10 percent of material that could have been recycled. If you have too many recyclables in your trash, then you get a $100 fine.

But as The Washington Examiner points out, the problem with city recycling wasn’t just that people weren’t recycling enough — it was that their ability to recycle was limited with curbside recycling because the bins were smaller. The recycling rate increased by 24 percent after the new recycling bins were implemented, raising the question of whether residents needed to be under surveillance to recycle more or just needed bigger recycling bins in the first place.

The short, rectangular bins that we associate with recycling hold 18 gallons — Alexandria, Va.’s new monitored curbside program offers recycling carts that hold up to 65 gallons, which is the same size as typical residential trash cans and illustrates the psychological aspect of recycling. When people are provided a bin that is roughly one-quarter the size of a trash can, it tells them they are expected to throw away a lot and recycle a little. If that size discrepancy was changed, then perhaps people wouldn’t be so freewheeling about how much they throw away or so apathetic about separating recyclables from trash.

In fact, some cities offer pay-as-you-throw programs so that residents are only charged based on how much they waste, either by bag, weight, or the size of trash can the resident chooses, with smaller sizes meaning smaller rates for trash service. These programs utilize an economic incentive that encourages waste reduction without using penalties.

And beyond bigger bins, some people generally need better access to recycling — for instance, in Cleveland, two-thirds of residents had curbside recycling until the program was cut in 2003, and a smaller pilot program that included more like 10 percent of residents wasn’t implemented until 2007.

People want options aside from the typical huge trash can and tiny corresponding recycing bin (or no bin at all), so cities should try spending their money on expanding curbside recycling and altering recycling bin size before jumping to surveillance. Successful recycling programs also feature community outreach, education, advertising, and communication — not just microchips and $100 fines.

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