Australian Waste-collection Businesses Tag Trash Bins

The EPC Gen 2 RFID tags enable the firms to distribute the receptacles more efficiently to homes and businesses—and, eventually, to monitor the collection of trash and recyclables.
Published: August 18, 2009

Radio frequency identification could soon be used to track the collection of rubbish and recycling if a new system being used across Australia proves successful. Mastec, an Australian manufacturer of general refuse, recycling and green waste bins, is trialing the technology’s use to identify each receptacle distributed to a home or business.

Local shires and councils currently pay a fee to a waste-management company, regardless of whether that business actually empties local trash bins. As a result, many are mandating contractors to tag bins during distribution, to pair a serial number and address so that in the future, they can be charged only when a waste-collection truck visits and empties a particular bin.

Michael Brixton, Mastec’s chief executive, says tracking large numbers of bins—as many as 180,000—across large geographical areas was difficult and could not be achieved with its existing system, which involved manual recording and spreadsheets. “We felt RFID would reduce the amount of labor required due to a reduction in paperwork and double entry of data, as well as increased accuracy of data that would ensure delivery transactions are not lost,” he says. “We tested a different RFID system, but found it too restrictive for our needs, so we engaged Datanet to assist in designing and building a custom system that would meet Mastec’s needs.”

Datanet, an Australian systems integrator, first developed the bin-identification system for Mastec and the Northern Adelaide Waste Management Authority (NAWMA) in South Australia, to distribute 180,000 bins with on-board ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC tags, and to provide data back to the council, including address details, as well as RFID tag ID and bin serial numbers.

Datanet’s chief executive, Neil Clarke, says accurately recording such a large amount of information was a significant challenge. “Initial data was provided by NAWMA from council rating systems in spreadsheets,” he explains, “providing address details and garbage-bin requirements for each address.”

Mastec also required the system to use its existing handheld computers, Motorola MC70s, which have bar-code-scan capability, Bluetooth and GPRS, but not RFID. So Datanet had to provide a cheap, simple-to-use RFID interrogator that could connect to the MC70s via Bluetooth, and chose Tracient Technology‘s Padl-R UHF readers.
Adilam Technologies, an RFID solutions provider based in Mooroolbark, Victoria, provided a custom tag consisting of an Alien Technology EPC Gen 2 inlay embedded in a 1.25-inch-diameter cap that screws directly into a molding in the bin’s underlip, thereby allowing direct reading from the front of the bin.

Datanet developed an integrated software system to allow Mastec to import data from councils, allocate a unique identifier to each bin and print delivery address labels to be applied to the bins.

The software has four components: a .Net desktop application known as Drop Manager, to import council spreadsheet data into a MSSQL database; a Web service component, to handle transferal of data over the packet data network from each handheld to the central database; a handheld RFID component; and a customer Web portal, to allow real-time monitoring of deliveries.

“Each truck is provided with a list of labels for a delivery area, approximately 80 bins at a time,” Clarke states. “The MC70 units are prepared by clearing transactions from the previous day, and the bins are loaded on to delivery trucks. The driver visits each address, assembles a bin by adding the lid, wheels and RFID label, and then scans the label’s unique ID, serial number, bar code and RFID tag.”

The tag ID is sent via Bluetooth to the Motorola MC70, and data is stored on the unit in an MS SQLCE database. On each tenth delivery, the unit automatically attempts to transmit the latest information back to the central database via a Telstra NextG Data Connection, where it is matched up with the bin’s serial number and address.
“There were a number of unique challenges and lessons,” Clarke says. “As with all battery-powered Bluetooth connections, the connection does not persist all day, but is dropped when not in use, to conserve battery power.” Tracient’s reader, he says, allowed Datanet to implement a system that required minimal intervention from an untrained user when the connection dropped, thus allowing maximum battery-life conservation, and giving a full-day shift on a single charge. “Adding a human factor to an RFID system creates its own challenges, too. Getting non-technical users to understand the need for separation between tags when reading presented some challenges—particularly when matching one tag to one bin.”

The system was tested over a three-month period, and was initially deployed at Mastec’s head office. The Drop Manager software required approximately four hours of user training before the field trial was launched. According to Clarke, each Mastec contract differs in its requirements, so the exact return on investment is difficult to determine. But gathering the information would not have been possible using spreadsheets and manual entry, due to the size of the rollout.

Thanks to the system’s simplicity, Brixton says, minimal training was required for the drivers, which was offered as a half-hour session before initial deliveries. In addition to labor-saving benefits, he notes, accurate data collection minimizes the number of revisits required when a bin has been incorrectly delivered.

The system paid for itself in the first 12 months, Brixton reports, and is already in use in Tasmania and South Australia, where bins are being tagged to confirm distribution to addresses. The system has reduced labor, he says, since users no longer need to manually input the details of bin distribution to each address, and record it on spreadsheets.

In the future, the system could also be adapted to record individual rubbish collection. Mastec is currently conducting a 120,000-bin rollout in New South Wales for waste-management firm JR Richards. According to Brixton, Mastec would continue to work with Datanet to further develop the system so that it could be used to monitor the collection of trash, recyclables and green waste.