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WOULD GARBAGE-BY-POUND PLAN SPUR DUMPING IN NEIGHBOR'S CAN?

Of all the taxes and fees the average homeowner has to pay, the one to collect garbage has to be the most unfair.

Think of it. A large family that stacks the can like a triple-decker cone every week pays the same rate as the widow or hermit whose trash consists of little more than a half-dozen TV dinner trays.Well, rest easy. If inequities exist in the world, you can be sure someone out there is working on it. In this case, a company in North Carolina called Toter Inc. is busy introducing fairness into the world of refuse. Company officials say they can embed computer chips inside municipally issued garbage cans to keep track of how much junk everyone throws away each week.

The chips would tell a computer within the truck which address it belonged to, and the computer in the truck would weigh the can and record the information.

At the moment, the technology is in its infancy, but some day this could revolutionize garbage collection, allowing local governments to charge people by the pound instead of by a flat rate. The benefits are obvious. Communities could combine this with a recycling program and give people a real incentive to take a byte, so to speak, out of a crowded landfill.

Sounds like a great idea to me, but it isn't exactly sweeping the country. For one thing, its inventors have had to bark, fetch and roll over sufficiently to satisfy federal officials at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That took time.

For another, the system still has its weaknesses. For instance, it can be used only with semi-automatic garbage trucks - the kind that require a three-person crew. Most communities along the Wasatch Front use fully automated trucks with only one-person crews.

Some recycling companies are interested. But so far the only community to sign up is little Petersburg, Alaska. Eli Lucas, superintendent of public works there, had hoped to be weighing trash by now, but the date has been moved back to January. The city wants to get new equipment in place to weigh trash at the landfill, as well.

Lucas said he didn't have to work too hard to find the idea.

"I learned about it by reading in one of those garbage magazines," he said. And you thought all those magazines were just trash.

I see some potential problems to this technological breakthrough. After a few months, the guy with the house full of litter-producing kids is going to get tired of the bills. He'll start sneaking out late at night and filling the can belonging to the widow or the hermit next door.

Then there are the vindictive neighbors, the ones who want to settle the score for a barking dog or some other complaint. They're liable to put a hose in your can and fill it with water, adding a few hundred dollars to your bill, plus the cost of a new garbage truck.

And the computers themselves: What happens when the first electrical storm comes up and wipes the disk clean just as the truck pulls into the landfill?

Jim Pickett, marketing manager at Toter, said he's thought of that already. The information would be stored in a hand-held computer as well as one in the truck. The truck computer would always store data from the last 5,000 items weighed, and information would be uploaded to another computer as soon as the day's haul is through. Still, anyone who has spent time with a computer possesses a healthy dose of skepticism.

And no one can guarantee the neighbors won't pose problems. Pickett refers to studies done in cities that use variable garbage rates. They show a slight increase in illegal dumping soon after the rates are imposed, but then they taper off.

Pickett said most people just won't stoop to filling other people's garbage cans. "It's just like they won't sneak over and unscrew your light bulbs," he said.

Perhaps, but late-night hot-light-bulb sneaking sounds a little more dangerous than trash dumping.

Toter says his company can equip a city with the trucks and equipment necessary for a cost of about $5 per year per household. Despite potential drawbacks, this is an idea with promise.

Scandalous: A headline in this week's editions of the Eagle newspapers said: "Commissioners remove swimsuits." Personally, I think this is taking the concept of public disclosure a little too far.