If the benefit to our environment isn’t enough to get some people to recycle, Georgia Tech’s Valerie Thomas has come up with the concept of offering a cash incentive enabled by “Smart Trash”. The concept involves a scanner integrated into a trash receptacle that automatically records what is being disposed of using Universal Product Codes (UPC) or radio frequency identification (RFID) tags attached to the trash. This would not only allow recyclers to better sort the waste but could also provide a cash back channel to consumers recycling goods of value.
After the trash leaves the house Thomas, an Interface Associate Professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, says a retrofitted recycling truck or recycling center that can sort the trash and recyclables would be required. A Wi-Fi connection between the trashcan and the recycling service would also relay information that would allow the system to anticipate and properly organize the contents.
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This would allow valuable items such as consumer electronics to be sent to auction sites where the proceeds could be sent directly back to consumers, while hazardous components could be shunted aside for appropriate disposal. Consumer recycling credits could also be issued for something as insignificant as a frozen pizza box or a shampoo bottle and any money garnered from this waste could be applied to a consumer's monthly sanitation bill or sent as a check.
For non-recyclable waste Thomas advocates burning in an environmentally friendly manner as a potential power source. Such an approach would also help resolve and privacy issues that result from the entire contents of a garbage can having a constant inventory. However, individuals could keep an inventory of products they consume if they so desired and Thomas says the system could also be used to pinpoint products that have been recalled for health and safety uses. Although identifying such products after they have been used might not be the best time to bring such information to light.
There’s no doubt that consumer recycling is currently fairly simplistic, focusing mostly on paper, aluminum and steel cans and some plastic bottles. Thomas believes that for the system to evolve and thrive, it must be expanded to a variety of different products while maintaining ease of use and adding incentives that encourage participation.
And it appears Thomas’ Smart Trash concept has captured some interest with a number of manufacturers, retailers, recyclers and researchers now working to actualize the Smart Trash idea. Project PURE (Promoting Understanding of RFID and the Environment) - featuring representatives of companies such as Wal-Mart and Hewlett-Packard, as well as recyclers and developers of product codes - is working to refine this concept and push it toward mainstream reality.
While it’s encouraging that some major players realize the importance of recycling and are investing resources in addressing the problem, you have to wonder whether the time, money and effort needed to implement such a system on a broad scale would be better spent educating consumers and strengthening the recycling infrastructure that already exists. Still, if the problems can be ironed out and the system can be implemented in a timely and cost-effective way there’s a chance consumers of the not-too-distant future will be looking forward to trash collection day to provide a little extra money in their pockets.