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The Economic Benefits of Going Green

The city and residents of Grand Rapids, Mich., are benefiting from RFID-based recycling and garbage-collection solutions.
By Minda Zetlin
Aug 04, 2013

Like people in cities and towns worldwide, the citizens of Grand Rapids, Mich., generate a lot of trash. The garbage is hauled to a county incinerator, and then some of it is transferred to a landfill. "The county incinerator has a maximum amount it can burn per day," says James Hurt, public services director for the city. "Anything beyond that capacity is transported to a landfill." The incinerator has controls to reduce emissions, he adds, but trash burned in the incinerator contributes to air pollution.

In 2010, the Midwestern city developed an ambitious three-phase plan that uses RFID to reduce the amount of trash sent to the county incinerator and landfill, while lowering costs and improving operations. The first phase, implemented in 2010, encourages residents to recycle by rewarding them with points redeemable for discounts and free merchandise at local businesses. The second phase, deployed in 2012, manages garbage collection and charges households only for what they throw out, decreasing the amount some residents pay. The final phase, currently in development, will be a system to collect food scraps and yard waste for composting, further allowing residents to reduce their garbage outflow.

Photo: City of Grand Rapids

With the first two phases rolled out successfully, the city is already seeing solid environmental and economic benefits. "The city has a sustainability plan," Hurt says. After some initial skepticism, residents are embracing both programs. That's due, in part, to an approach that benefits participants, he says. "We also have a community that truly cares for the environment," he adds. "I would liken it to a core community value."

Beyond the environmental benefits, Grand Rapids has lowered its incinerator fees and improved operational efficiencies. Hurt projects annual savings going forward of approximately $1.2 million a year.

Phase 1: Rewards for Recycling
Since 2010, Grand Rapids has been using RFID-enabled carts and trucks to manage recycling. Each SmartCart, made with recycled materials by the local firm Cascade Engineering, is fitted with an ultrahigh-frequency Gen 2 EPC Snap-In tag from Xtreme RFID, a Cascade subsidiary. The tag's ID number is linked to a customer's account. The trucks are equipped with mechanical platforms that lift and empty the carts, so drivers don't have to hoist the recyclables manually. The trucks are also equipped with an RFID reader and antenna from AMCS Group, which captures the tag's ID number as the cart is tipped. That information is transmitted to a GPS-enabled computer mounted on the truck's dashboard, and then to the city's back-office application via mobile communications. Capturit, another Cascade subsidiary, provides the onboard computers and software for the project.

Grand Rapids uses the information to identify which areas have high and low recycling rates, to better understand recycling practices and trends throughout the city. The city also rewards residents who recycle through an innovative program called myGRcitypoints. "You register your cart, and each time you put it out to the curb it assigns you points," Hurt says. The points are based on the total weight of recycling collected on a day's route—the heavier the truck, the more points everyone gets. Thus, it's to residents' advantage not only to recycle their own trash, but to encourage their neighbors to recycle as well.

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