Technology is re-inventing waste management & it’s a good thing

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Smart Waste companies began years ago on the premise that technological advances could have a transformational impact on how we manage waste. Today this is a reality!

For decades, waste management has effectively followed the same model: Waste is collected on a regular schedule to ensure our streets, neighbourhoods and businesses are clean, safe and able to be enjoyed by all. This has been achieved by scheduling regular or static collections by waste collection staff in trucks to empty our bins.

In the past this was sufficient because communities and daily life were more static. Today’s more volatile world, changing demographics and larger numbers of people commuting, can result in highly unpredictable, fluctuating waste levels.  Traditionally to ensure we don’t get caught out with overflowing bins, we’ve planned collections based on the peak levels, but the peak is only a moment or two in time, so the vast majority of the time we’re collecting too often. Effectively we all end up paying to collect more air than waste because in this traditional, low-tech, waste management model, we don’t know when your bin is full. Even so, we can still get caught out with overflowing bins for the same reason.

I believe that the sun is beginning to set on this fixed collection model. It’s no longer fit for purpose in the complex world we find ourselves and increasingly the market place is recognising this too (I’ve written about this aspect before).

A number of cities in northern Europe have already shifted from fixed collection days to a more flexible model and are reaping benefits of up to 60% cost savings. Switching from fixed collections to systems based around predictive demand will substantially reduce the cost of collecting waste. The technology to enable us to make the shift to a more accurate, reliable and cost-effective model for waste collection is now well proven in the field.

Cities and local authorities around the world are under enormous pressure to cut budgets whilst ensuring continued quality of service whilst their populations are dynamic and growing. There’s also the further challenge of increasing recycling and moving towards zero waste or the circular economy. To achieve this seemingly conflicting combination of demands is eminently possible but only under a new operating model.

I’m not the only one to be thinking and writing about this. I read with interest Viridors recent blog and report suggesting that England’s “current waste management systems are no longer fit for purpose”. I agree with this premise and also some of the key observations they make including that waste management across local authority boundaries makes good sense. Not only that but in our experience this problem exists across the globe and is far from limited to England. Our technology is already helping large UK Local Authorities like Leeds, Warrington, Islington, Edinburgh and Royal Borough of Greenwich evaluate their collection regimes but also an increasing number of cities around the globe such as Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hague, Pittsburg, to name just a few.

A reduction of 50% in current scheduled collections and related costs is not an unusual outcome and as a result, a growing number of local authorities around the world are also exploring how they might benefit from our solution. This is highly likely to lead to more aggregated approaches or resource networks to unlock further economies of scale, so I agree with Viridor on this aspect too.

Even at a simplistic level, the traditional waste collection model no longer works from a cost point of view. Collection costs are rising, the prices for many recyclable materials are falling and there are the pressures of austerity on budgets, all whilst populations are growing.

Historically when the commodities prices for recyclable materials were attractive, cities benefited from this as waste management companies and brokers made money from selling the recyclable materials they collected, with the revenue being shared with cities in the form of rebates or collection and disposal cost offsets.

Today the commodities prices have fallen and in some cases turned negative. Cities that have previously benefitted from this may find a big hole in their budget thanks to the drop or loss of this revenue.

We can change the economics of waste collection by leveraging economies of scale through common collection, embracing predictive technologies so we only collect bins that are full. Further,  new technological predictive demand collection systems yield additional benefits from the vast amount of data collected such as providing an ability to optimise bin numbers and placement across a city. This can only be done from accurate data and provides a further level of efficiency not previously attainable. It is very rewarding to see how our customers are turning such insight into actions.

This all means that some processes and operating models will need to be adjusted but the good news is that it’s not as difficult as you might imagine.

Beginning to make these changes might also mean that we need to begin to evolve how we handle residential waste. This could potentially see a move towards communal neighbourhood bins for example. It’s already a common approach in parts of Europe and further across the globe and is also just about to be adopted in Cambridge in the UK. This is another proven model that may make sense for us to adopt to maximise the benefits we can unlock from a new technology-led approach.

Change to the way we manage waste collection is coming and the challenging environment we all face, I believe, will be a catalyst to accelerate this transition to a new model that will cut costs, increase efficiency, whilst enabling local government to positively improve services in their communities.

The Internet of Things has arrived in waste management and I believe it will be the most powerful change for good in a generation.

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