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Why RFID Isn’t the Best Solution for Municipal Waste and Recycling Fleets

In the world of solid waste, we often encounter municipalities with poor-performing radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology. Why?

RFID is a common technology that showed great promise in the solid waste industry. RFID systems are made up of two physical components that transfer data through radio wave frequencies. RFID requires both tags and readers. Tags go into or onto refuse carts, often for residential curbside pickup. And readers go into every truck, positioned near the lifting arm. Each time a cart is within a small geographical vicinity of the reader, the RFID system registers a pickup.

When RFID systems are used in waste management, they are intended to help haulers register service confirmations and keep track of container location. In practice, however, we see these systems performing poorly, especially in municipal contexts.

RFID Challenges for Municipal Residential Collection

Here are a few of the challenges we have noticed:

Extensive Hardware and Installation

For RFID systems to work, the readers require extensive wiring. This wiring increases the cost and complexity of installation. Extensive wiring can also complicate truck maintenance—if the wiring runs through a part of the truck that needs to be disassembled for maintenance, the wiring must be taken apart and rewired. We have also frequently seen wiring that fails, given the heavy wear and tear associated with daily garbage collection.

RFID Only Delivers Half the Information

RFID can tell cities whether a cart was picked up. But it can’t tell cities why a cart was not picked up. In cases where no ID is recorded, or where there is an exception such as a bin being blocked or not out, the city might still want to know the reason. Maybe the bin was not out. Or maybe the driver was there but could not access the bin. Therefore, a tablet or other in-cab device (or, worst-case, a paper route sheet) is required on top of the RFID reader. Adding multiple pieces of hardware to a vehicle increases cost.

RFID Databases Require Maintenance

In waste management systems that use RFID, tags or transponders are placed on the carts and bins. If a cart’s ID and address do not match (neighbors accidentally mix up carts, a storm blows it out of its area, etc.), RFID becomes much less useful, as it can’t tell the City that a particular cart was set out at a particular residence. To avoid database corruption, cities must actively maintain these databases, which often requires a dedicated staff person and a complex dance between the cart delivery team, the cart repair team, 311 services, and the RFID database administrator. We often see well-intentioned municipal operations challenged by the effort involved in maintaining this database.

Devices are Not Transferable Between Vehicles

Since RFID readers must be hardwired to vehicles, cities must equip every vehicle with a reader. That means that a vehicle that is in the shop for maintenance means that the RFID technology is also out of commission. This wastes valuable resources and removes the opportunity for a city to continue collecting community insights and delivering best-in-class customer service during these down times. Given how hard it is to keep garbage trucks on the road, cities that invest in RFID readers are likely to be paying for equipment they don’t use.

Alternatives to RFID

At Rubicon®, we are working hard to establish a cloud-based alternative to RFID—one that does not require hardwiring or maintaining a separate database, and one that empowers drivers to log issues at the curb as they see them. The result? RUBICONSmartCity™, a SaaS technology suite for waste and recycling fleet management.

By providing a “hardware-light” solution instead of one that is “hardware-intensive,” we are able to save cities money, both in upfront costs and in long-term hardware repair and replacement costs, while delivering more valuable and actionable insights. Without extensive hardware, the risk of continued maintenance costs and outdated hardware is essentially eliminated.

Deploying cloud-based solutions into fleet vehicles is also simpler, with a total installation time of under one hour per vehicle. Rubicon’s Pod device and ICI are quickly installed and preloaded with all relevant technology to ensure minimum disruption to the City’s daily operations.

Through this process, we have seen first-hand how this cloud-based system can reduce costs, improve services, and create more sustainable waste operations when compared with RFID. We are intimately familiar with municipal government and its budgetary constraints, so our solution was developed with these issues top of mind.

To learn more about RUBICONSmartCity, to request a demo, or to register for a free pilot, complete the form on this page and a member of the RUBICONSmartCity team will get back to you right away.


Conor Riffle is Vice President of Smart Cities at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.