There, at the end of your driveway it sits. A perfectly normal-looking, brand-new 96-gallon cart for recycling dropped off by the city. Yet, it is more than it seems.
Embedded inside is a chip that will help city government track recycling practices at your address and target those who fall short with recycling re-education. The chip will be coded to your address and to a serial number on your can. When read by an electronic reader, it will help the city keep track of which residences are recycling and which are not. The data on the recycling habits of individual residences will be stored by the city for three years, says City of Charlotte Special Projects Manager Brandi Williams, though no names will be attached to them.
"Participation data will allow city staff to focus educational initiatives in low-participating geographic areas," Williams wrote in a recent e-mail to me.
The new bins cost the city $12 million, the same amount the city says it will save by going to a new, more efficient system. City bureaucrats say that serial numbers on the old cans are currently manually recorded to addresses, and this will just make things easier. The program shouldn't be controversial.
Tell that to the people of the United Kingdom, where controversy over what they've come to call "spy chips" continues to rage. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) chipped recycling carts even became an issue in Gordon Brown's re-election campaign for prime minister. The Brits were steamed recently to learn that the chips were secretly implanted in 2.5 million additional trash cans, despite a promise from Brown to halt their roll-out in 2008 after the first batch had the whole country up in arms.
The bins were part of a tax scheme by the government to track the garbage disposal and recycling habits of citizens and fine them for throwing out too much or not recycling enough. Recycling trucks were outfitted with measuring devices to monitor the amount of waste placed in them. Citizens who met the government's disposal quotas would actually receive reward money.
The recycling tax plan was initially halted due to public outrage, but recently some town councils have voted to go forward with it. Oddly, the RFID chips showed up in recycling carts here nearly as surreptitiously as they did in the U.K. Charlotte City Councilman Andy Dulin says he was unaware of them until we did this story on my radio show last week. City bureaucrats assured him the City Council had been told about it, but he says he doesn't recall the details of that.
When Alexandria, Va., introduced RFID-chipped bins last week, it made national news. The plan in Alexandria is similar to the one here. Use the chips to track who rolls out their recycling bins every week and target those who are not participating with "education and outreach."
In Philadelphia, residents can choose to "team up" with a private company that then provides RFID-outfitted recycle bins. According to the Philadelphia Business Journal, recycling pick-up trucks "retrofitted with a 'tipper' that weighs and notes how much material is in the container" left at the curb monitor people's recycling. People who meet certain goals get gift certificates to places like Starbucks and Target. The program, according to the Journal, is very popular -- but, so far, also completely voluntary.
Recycling is, of course, a good idea. I'm obsessed enough with saving trees to pull paper out of the trash when I see it and deposit it in the recycling bin. And Charlotte's bureaucrats of course offer their usual reassurances that this isn't a privacy invasion, but a program aimed at improving "efficiency." (That seems to be the way all privacy intrusions start when it comes to government.)
A look at the privacy battle currently brewing across the pond shows where this could eventually wind up. In parts of the U.K., the London Daily Mail reports, government recycling regimes have become near dictatorial. By law, families must sort each piece of trash into nine separate color-coded bins. The green bin is for food waste, the pink one is for plastic bottles. Cardboard goes in a green bag, clothing and textiles in a white bin and a blue bag is used for paper and magazines. Garden waste goes in a wheelie bin with a brown lid and a blue box is used for foil, tins and empty aerosols.
And it's not optional. Recycling is tracked by RFID, scales and by "bin police" who can fine people on the spot for putting trash out on the wrong days, putting the wrong trash in the wrong container or throwing out something that is supposed to be recycled. Failure to pay the fines can result in £1,000 penalties and criminal records.
The trash-sorting requirements have become so onerous that the burning of household rubbish has now become the greatest source of highly toxic and cancer-causing dioxins in the environment, the Daily Mail reports.
That's not to say that anything similar would ever happen here. But when the bureaucrats here start using similar monitoring technology, we should keep an eye on them.