Recent research from Eurostat shows that the UK has one of the poorest recycling records in Europe. The UK recycles just 23 per cent of its municipal waste and sends more waste to landfills than any other country in Europe. A sobering statistic from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs shows that in just over a week, the UK produces enough rubbish to fill Wembley stadium – over half of which can be recycled. The situation is so dire that Local Government Association figures suggest at current rates of waste disposal Britain will hit its landfill limit in 2018.

All the figures point to one thing, the UK is on a crash course with a new waste reality – too much rubbish, too little space. The UK creates an alarming amount of waste on a daily basis and fails to recycle as much as it could. If targets to reduce the amount of rubbish sent to landfills are not met soon, taxpayers are likely to face huge financial penalties either for recycling non-compliance and/or for waste deposition.

So what steps can be taken to improve the situation, what tools are available and what lessons can be learned from those countries that are getting it right? With costs rising at all points in the waste management process, shrinking landfill space, and growing consumer interest in recycling, RFID (radio frequency identification) technology – is playing a growing role in enabling cities and towns around the worldto develop effective recycling processes and improve the efficiency of their waste operations.

So how does this technology work in practice? It starts with an RFID tag attached to the rubbish bin. Bins face rain, dirt, snow and ice and must withstand being dropped, turned or thrown about so the tag is especially designed to protect the vulnerable microcircuits inside from these harsh environments. Typically, the unique ID number of a tag is associated with a bin and the bin owner’s address in a database.

A reader/antenna is embedded into the rubbish or recycling collection lorry which captures the tag’s ID as each receptacle is emptied. Data collected from the tags, which can be linked with a time stamp, lets operators monitor sorting quality, track the number of times a container is set out for collection and track the weight of its contents. This information can be sent directly to a host computer using 802.11 wireless connectivity. The data can also be stored in the lorry’s onboard computer and later transferred to a central waste management system for data processing.

It sounds impressive, but how does it actually improve waste management? Essentially, the RFID technology allows councils to monitor waste collection. The readers record the exact time and place a bin is emptied. This enables cheaper, faster, more accurate data reporting, it eliminates the need for manual data-entry, provides more accurate billing for commercial customers, and better monitoring of the performance of sub-contractors.

Data collection can be done with handheld devices that record each point of transfer and the information can be integrated with scheduling, order number and billing systems, eliminating the need for manual or duplicate data entry. With all of the data that is collected over time, operators have the information they need to analyse average or appropriate volumes of waste and recycling by neighbourhood. When the analysis reveals that a neighbourhood or residence is out of the norm for waste volume or recycling, the local council could choose to encourage greater recycling through incentives or penalties.

The RFID tags also provide an unprecedented degree of control and traceability in disposing of hazardous or otherwise sensitive waste material as the data they collect can be used to identify, secure and verify items for disposal.

In the UK, consumer rubbish collection is managed by the local council, and recycling is largely left up to the individual. However, in many countries it is run by private companies and households pay for their service by the weight of their rubbish. Forward-thinking countries are using the data that the RFID technology generates to incentivise the public to recycle. By tagging bins, operators can weigh rubbish and this brings accountability so that consumers that diligently recycle can become eligible for rebates.

Ireland’s AMCS Group for example has created an RFID-based solution that enables rubbish to be weighed as it is loaded into the truck and the data is then logged for that household. The incentive lies in the fact that households do not pay for the recycling that is collected, only for landfill waste, so the more consumers recycle, the less they pay.

A similar scheme operates in the US city of Philadelphia, where residents receive a bin fitted with a low-frequency RFID tag that identifies each household. On collection day, each bin is placed on a scale, identified by the RFID tag and reader, and then weighed. The system tracks the amount of recycling each household produces per month and the households then receive a voucher reward which can be redeemed at over 300 retailers. As a result of introducing RFID tags the city went from one of the nation’s worst recycling rates — 6 percent to an incredible 90 percent.

In Cleveland, Ohio a scheme is being introduced whereby residents who fail to recycle their rubbish could face a $100 fine. The city council is investing $2.5 million on equipping 50,000 RFID-enabled bins and readers for the bin lorries and is confident that the scheme will be profitable based on the amount of money it can make from selling on recyclables. The information collected by the RFID tags will also help the council to identify where to target recycling education efforts.

The success of this approach hinges on the concept of incentive and reward – as opposed to the UK; where recycling is left to the good will of the customer. However, introducing pay-as-you-throw waste schemes to complement recycling incentives could be an option in the future. Ideally RFID tags on rubbish and recycling bins will come to be seen as a benefit rather than an arbitrary tax and could help recycling be seen as a way of reducing household bills rather than just providing peace of mind.

Ultimately, cutting down on landfill and boosting recycle will depend on more effective processes and more intelligent engagement with the consumer. RFID technology is just an enabler, – it provides a database engine but if embraced by the government and the householder as part of incentive and recycling schemes, RFID could prove to be a key factor in helping to improve the UK’s waste management and recycling records.