LARGO — Is Big Brother going to be snooping on your garbage?
Probably not, but Largo residents will soon get new recycling bins that will have microchips embedded in them. This will allow the city to keep track of where the bins are and whether they're being used — or not being used.
That practice has caused controversy in places like Cleveland, where these devices enable officials to issue $100 fines to Clevelanders who don't recycle enough of their trash.
However, the high-tech recycling carts caused no controversy when they were recently introduced in Tampa and Hillsborough County. There are no fines involved, and officials talk of using the microchips merely as a tool to improve customer service.
That's the strategy being followed in Largo, where city commissioners voted last week to spend a million dollars to buy 18,000 new recycling carts.
The carts are for Largo's new single-stream curbside recycling program, which officials hope will encourage more households to recycle more items.
Currently, Largo residents can recycle plastic bottles (Nos. 1 and 2), mixed paper, aluminum cans and flattened cardboard. They get a blue bin for their recyclables that they carry or drag to the curbside.
Under the new recycling program, which is to be launched by next February, residents will toss recyclables into new carts with wheels similar to Largo's garbage bins. They'll be able to recycle glass, more types of plastic, juice and milk cartons, aluminum foil and tin cans.
The new carts, which cost $55 apiece, will be outfitted with radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags to reduce loss or theft and to help the city collect information about recycling participation throughout Largo.
"This would give us the ability to potentially — we're looking at this technology right now — to verify pickups through RFID readers on the actual trucks," said Chas Jordan, a management analyst for Largo's public works department. "We hope to make this a standard for all the homes within the city of Largo."
RFID technology is widely used in the aerospace and health care industries to keep tabs on supplies. It was too expensive for more widespread use until a few years ago, when cities around the county began using the technology to tag recycling bins.
The RFID technology will be able to time-stamp when each container gets emptied. This means that next time someone calls to complain that their recycling bin was skipped, the city's sanitation office will be able to tell when the other carts around that household were emptied or if an entire street was missed.
"We get a number of calls each day saying that a truck may have driven by but didn't pick up a can," Jordan said. "This will give us the ability to verify that, to check and see if it was picked up. Maybe the can wasn't out at the time that we drove by."
At a public meeting last week, Commissioner Robert Murray asked what data will be programmed into the $2 RFID chips.
"It will be geotagged to a house, to an address, and we will be able to track the number of times this house participates in the recycling program," said Gene Ginn, assistant solid waste manager. "It would also indicate to us if a container moves across the street, and a house now has two containers."
Largo commissioners voted unanimously for the plan. Getting residents to recycle more material could save the city some significant money in tipping fees at Pinellas County's landfill.
However, the city has no plans to bug people who don't recycle.
Murray asked if city staffers were considering additional uses for the RFID technology — particularly a rewards programs to encourage people to recycle more.
"We really want to get the mixed recycling going for a while before we even broach that subject," Jordan said.
Once Largo's single-stream recycling program is launched, recyclables will be taken to a facility that has automated equipment capable of cleaning and separating the material all at once.
Largo will become one of 66 cities and counties in Florida doing this, including Dunedin, Oldsmar and Safety Harbor.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151.