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Charleston County rolls out RFID to 120K homeowners for recycling collection

08/22/11 | John R. Johnson | email

The retail industry is embracing item level RFID for the enhanced visibility that the technology provides when it comes to monitoring product movement through the supply chain and on store shelves.

While much has been written about the high stakes for retailers, another industry is just discovering the plethora of benefits that result from increased visibility and the attractive ROI from harvesting that newfound data.

RFID is becoming big business at the far end of the supply chain, as trash haulers and recyclers embrace the technology. This week Intermec announced a partnership with systems integrator Sonrai Systems that has helped Charleston County, S.C. to more than double its recycling participation. The program has been so successful that it will be expanded from a pilot program for 5,000 households to a major deployment to 120,000 homes over the next two years.

"The ROI on this is starting to scream off the page," says Tony Romano, business development manager with systems integrator Sonrai Systems. "This usage data has never been available. This is going to save the County millions."

Don Ross, project manager for Kessler Consulting, which is advising Charleston County on the project, says that an additional 30,000 RFID-tagged bins will be rolled out during the first quarter of 2012. Similar programs have been deployed in Philadelphia, Cleveland and parts of New Jersey, and Sonrai Systems is about to deploy a pilot in Framingham, Mass.

By utilizing RFID, Charleston County has more than doubled its recycling participation, reaching recycling levels of 70 percent or higher in some areas. RFID has helped to provide Charleston County with unparalleled accuracy within its environmental management program, with productivity rates increasing by 83 percent.

One reader and a pair of antennas provided by Intermec are installed on each trash truck to read the recycling bins before and after they are dumped. All of the 120,000 trash bins will carry RFID tags on each handle. Trash bin manufacturers have used a variety of tag manufacturers and have been tagging new bins for several years in anticipation of a strong need for tagged product.

However, RFID adoption is still very much in its infancy when it comes to trash and recycle hauling. Romano says that there are about 120,000 trash haulers on the road, with RFID penetration currently at less than one percent.

"We're telling everybody looking at cart programs that even though you may not know or understand the benefits of RFID today, if you are buying a cart that has a 10 year warranty put a chip in it now," says Ross. "Because in a very short time you're going to need that. You don't want to retro-fit them later."

Ross estimates that it costs about $1 to tag each recycling bin. Outfitting the trucks costs about $10,000-12,000 per truck. Charleston County is rolling out four RFID-enabled trucks during the first deployment and will eventually need about 15 enabled trucks. ROI is estimated at only four months.

With a solid waste diversion goal of 40 percent, Charleston County is addressing improvements in all facets of its recycling program, including residential single stream recycling, where the RFID solution has proven invaluable in its ability to precisely identify recycling participation and increase collection operations productivity.

While the Charleston County application doesn't come close to rivaling other municipal programs in terms of size, there is a clear distinction with the program that qualifies it as a ground breaking application.

"For the first time, resources and capital equipment investments will be allocated specifically by knowing what the job entails from the data they have collected," says Romano. "There are much larger programs out there where some people dabbled in RFID and they are starting to see the return on it because there is a cultural shift occurring.

"Historically there has never been a bullet proof way to gather data on who puts their blue bin or recycling cart out at the curb. Charleston County knows exactly how many people are participating, down to the address level. That is the beauty of what RFID has afforded us, and hopefully the entire industry, very soon."

Romano says that convincing municipalities to invest money on technology to track trash is difficult in today's challenging budgetary environment. However, "ROIs are becoming so significant and compelling," he says, noting that municipalities don't have the proper visibility to know how many trash trucks they need, and are basing purchases of trucks that cost upwards of $250,000 off little or no data at all.

Additionally, there has been some hesitation to purchase tagged recycling bins. "A purchasing manager is going to ask why do I need asset tracking for a $55 asset," says Ross. "But when they understand that they have $6 million of them in 140 different locations, they realize that maybe they do need to track these."

The other sweet spot? Disposal costs in the U.S. range from $20 a ton to $200 a ton for trash. For recycling, the figure can be as low as zero to $40 a ton. Every ton of trash that the city of Philadelphia removes from its trash stream represents a $110 swing – instead of paying $75 to dump it, they can receive up to $35 to recycle it.

"This solution pushes on all three of your major cost groups in collection and hauling," says Ross. "The ability to track labor and productivity down to the unit provides supervisors with the visibility to control labor costs. In addition, knowing where the truck is and how it is operating is very beneficial."

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