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Computerised Dustbins

From mid 2006, UK councils up and down the country, have been embarking on a new project - creating a sensor web out of dustbins.

Hundreds of thousands of plastic 'wheelie bins' are being fitted with passive RFID chips to monitor the amount of waste discarded by householders.

Councils say they are necessary to gather data about people's rubbish disposal habits and are also a vital tool in settling disputes over bin ownership. But experts are warning that these bugs, which transmit information to a central database, could be used to fine those who exceed limits on the amount of non-recyclable rubbish that they put out.

About 500,000 bins across England and Wales already carry the electronic devices which are slightly bigger than a one-pence piece- about a centimetre and a quarter in diameter - which are attached to a moulded recess in the lip of the bin. As the bin is lifted up for emptying by council workers, a sensor on the refuse truck scans the chip, which carries a serial number assigned to each property in the street. This then enables the monitoring equipment to identify the bin's address and record the weight of the rubbish that is in the bin.

The system works by a reader on the back of the dustcart activating the tag as the bin is lifted - as most dustcarts can lift two at a time, they actually have two readers, one for each bin. Pressure sensing devices hooked to the lifting arms weigh the bin as it is lifted, then compare the weight to the stored weight of an empty bin of the same type - again using the RFID signal number to determine the type.

The weight of the full bin minus the weight of an empty bin, is of course the weight of the rubbish for that household that week. This figure is stored by the council, on a data card inside the dustcart.

The data cards are uploaded to a central, networked computer system back at the refuse depot, and data extracted from them, is used to bill residents for excess waste disposal - despite refuse collection being a part of council tax.

Once the truck returns to the depot, all information collected is downloaded onto a central computer. Householders can then be billed for the amount of waste that has been collected from them, even though they have already paid for rubbish collection services through their council tax.

Known Issues

Its not hard to see ways round this scheme. It has been employed by many councils to deal with ever-increasing amounts of refuse, and as a way to encourage recycling schemes - which do not charge for weight. However, the most likely outcome is residents will start playing musical chairs with their waste, putting heavy items in their neighbour's dustbins, before the dustcart arrives.

The cost of the system is also inexplicably insane. Each chip costs £2-£3 to manufacture. However, to fit it to a wheelie bin which is itself, basically vacuum-moulded, heavy-duty plastic, by screwing it to the lid securing it, and entering the data into it, has cost anywhere up to £15,000 a bin. Why it costs this ridiculous figure, is not clear at this time.

Staff Comments


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