How will technology impact the efficiency and sustainability of waste management?

Written by: Dan Botterill | Published:
Image credit: Adobe stock

Waste management across the globe is essentially a simple business: councils or private operators pick up bins full of trash and take them in a big truck to a point where someone else burns it, dumps it, or attempts some form of recycling.

This is the way waste management has always been. New York’s first waste management was an attempt to clean the streets of the thousands of tonnes of horse manure dumped on them every day.

London began with the need to take away coal dust from coal-burning fires in homes and buildings and recycled it making bricks (which is why so many London buildings are made of red and black bricks).

Whereas New York dumped its waste in the Atlantic, most of the world dumped its very small amounts of urban waste in open sites in fields around the towns where waste was produced, and most industrial waste, especially liquid waste, simply went into the rivers.

Being a waste manager required limited amounts of intellectual sophistication and was mostly focused upon logistics – how to get waste from A to B as fast and as cheaply as possible. And waste streams were few and simple to manage, especially from average households that produced virtually no waste until the 1960s.

The advent of packaging, plastics and electrical/electronic products has changed the way waste managers work. Yet, in 70% of the world, the old pick up and dump model continues sadly unchanged with disastrous consequences, such as oceans being full of plastics. But elsewhere waste management is now a sophisticated, technically and socially complex industry.

Dawn of the IoT era

Technology has enabled waste management to ensure environmental and human health protection while at the same time handling complex materials, increasing recycling, producing energy and virtually eliminating landfills in some countries.

Beyond having effective recycling and sorting facilities and incinerators with virtually zero harmful emissions (except for CO2), technology has now enabled a new step-change in waste management efficiency:

Robotics are already widely present in sorting material facilities. They are now almost commercially ready to go into some collection systems (by 2020, we shall see these in place in some towns and even in nation states like Singapore). Apple is using robots to dismantle and recover materials from its phones and pads.

The internet allows continuous real-time tracking of waste across countries and within streams – from bin to small material recovery facility (SMRF) to incinerator, we can electronically trace the movement of waste in real time. These systems are widely applied across Europe and the USA, reducing logistics costs and ensuring legality.

Hydraulic collection systems are increasingly being introduced in new buildings to avoid bins on the road. Envac is one company offering these services and, with data management and barcodes on collection bags, is able to detect which bin each type of waste should be sent to.

Plant management, emission monitoring, chemical/biological parameters within plants (such as AD) are all automated and remotely controlled. Vast plants are run by relatively few people. Will driverless trucks be next?

At a consumer level we are able to track the waste outputs of individuals through smartcards used when putting waste in bins. Programmes introduced as long ago as the late 1990s introduced bonus points for households taking their waste to collection points and registering their delivery through the smartcard.

One day, everything we throw away will be monitored electronically – think of a system that traces what you buy at a supermarket through to what you do with it and where it goes when discarded. It is not far away.

Data, data and more data

These new technologies are creating vast amounts of data. The data allows us to understand the movement not just of waste but of people – how they behave and what products and materials they are buying and will turn into waste.

This helps us predict the future and plan waste collection, the location of bins on the streets, the amount of plant we need, with some anticipation.

The new frontier is managing this data, understanding it and using it in business. Frankly, waste managers are bad at communicating with who creates waste and are terrible at having conversations about waste reduction and prevention. Technology now allows real-time monitoring of waste data, what is collected where and to which plant it is destined.

It also allows producers of waste to intervene to reduce their waste outputs – for example, through measuring, benchmarking against competitors, measuring against national standards and their own budgets.

It is surprising to make waste analyses in companies and find out how little many understand about the types of waste they produce and the costs of collection, treatment and disposal.

Work done by Ditto Sustainability for hospitals within the NHS has led to considerable rationalisation of services and reduced costs. It is also surprising to see how many waste management companies know so little of their customers’ businesses and are unable to help in key issues such as prevention.

Democratising knowledge

Technology changes all this, because it gives multilateral access to information that was once in the hands of the few, and the privileged.

This is the era of information democratisation. Suddenly information has become cheap to access and this means we can all access it.

Add to this the use of artificial intelligence and blockchain computing – technologies that allow the multiplication of the access and transmission of intelligence and its automation. How does this work in practice?

First, data collection will be faster and simpler; then automated trend and performance analysis allows the user to see anomalies immediately; finally, this informs employee behaviour and decisions and allows immediate corrective actions.

Think about how this allows real-time reporting for a company’s annual Environmental Social Governance reporting and targets – no longer do we need to collect information at the end of the year; we have it available every day, day by day. This can make sustainability and waste management a more dynamic actor in the drive to a better planet.

Sustainability through education

The technology revolution allows new ways of learning and teaching sustainability. Ditto Sustainability has embraced this, providing low-cost teaching modules for businesses across the country, and increasingly abroad too.

Using captivating graphics and structured learning modules, learners can log in from home or the office and take courses on subjects as diverse as circular economy or healthcare waste management, and the modules are accredited so they count towards employees’ annual training objectives.

Some are as short as 10-minute, introductory courses on complex questions; many of these are free. Deeper analyses and understanding of the issues are then accessible via online payment and accreditation.

Gone are the days when we needed consultants and classrooms to get complex concepts across. Now the hundreds or thousands of employees working in a business can learn these in their own time and at a fraction of the cost, and without sitting in a conference room for hours.

This helps drive sustainability, and waste managers would do well to think about how these instruments can help them improve their environmental as well as their business performances. Closer links to their customers through training and data management are going to drive customer loyalty and satisfaction.

That 21st century truck driver is altogether a different beast today.

Dan Botterill is CEO of Ditto Sustainability.


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