Irate Britons want trash bins with tracking chips dumped

McClatchy Newspapers
Feb. 25, 2007

LONDON - The British tolerate millions of surveillance cameras watching their every public move. They agreed to let roadside cameras record their vehicular movements and store the information for two years. But when they discovered that their garbage is being bugged, they howled that Big Brother had gone too far.

Local governments have attached microchips to about 500,000 "wheelie bins," the trash cans residents wheel to the curb for collection. The aim, they say, is to help monitor collections and boost the national recycling rate, which is among the lowest in Europe.

The public has reacted with suspicion and fury.

"Germans Plant Bugs in Our Wheelie Bins," a Daily Mail headline announced in August. Two of the bin manufacturers are German. Newspaper letter writers have taken to calling it "Bin Brother."

Small-scale revolts have erupted across Britain for months as localities adopt the technology. Some towns failed to mention the new feature, which is concealed under coin-sized plugs under the rims of their garbage cans.

In the coastal city of Bournemouth, 72-year-old Cyril Baker ripped the chip off his new bin the day he discovered it, then went on national television to show how he did it. Thousands of his neighbors followed his example.

"It was a very emotional issue. The whole town was in an uproar," he said.

"I think people really see this as an intrusion into their personal space," said Bournemouth councilman Nick King, a champion of the anti-chip cause.

Residents also fear that the little bug will nip them in the wallet. The microchips -- radio frequency identification transmitters known as RFID tags -- can't actually spy on the contents of a bin. They're more like tiny digital nametags, but they hold lots of information and can be scanned from yards away.

In parts of Germany and Belgium, garbage trucks equipped with scales and scanners lift the tagged bins. The bins are weighed as they're emptied, and residents are charged for each pound they send to the landfill.

Bournemouth administrators swear that they intend only to monitor trash trends and return lost bins to their assigned homes. Other cities said they wanted to identify heavy heapers to advise them on better rubbish management.

But residents suspect a plan to levy charges for garbage hauling, and some local officials have acknowledged that's their long-term aim.

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