The perfect storm for waste management?

Across the globe, presently we face a range of competing and conflicting challenges. Many of these could in some respects also be described as a series of “black swan” moments. The term “black swan” was coined by Nassem Taleb to describe events that come as a surprise and have a major impact but are also often rationalized after the fact to hindsight.

Examples of these include unprecedented pressures on costs, growing urban populations, continued growth in waste levels and the rising costs and environmental impacts of using landfill etc. These are already adding stress to the challenges of waste management across the globe.

However, there are also an additional range of factors that also have an impact on waste management activities including growing road congestion in most cities, along with an increasing reluctance in many communities for large polluting heavy goods vehicles, like refuse trucks, to be allowed free reign on the roads (which links to the emerging trend of cities aspiring to be more liveable, sustainable including reducing any form of pollution to the absolute minimum).

Lower commodity prices have also driven down the demand and price of recycled materials, reducing revenues for the industry. To add to these woes, a number of governments have implemented austerity measures[1], reducing the funds and resources available for waste collection activities, which is adding considerable stress into the system.

Collectively all of the above might well be a perfect storm for the waste management business and many people we talk to are wondering how to make the best decisions under this range of pressures.

I think the question might better be put as how do we optimise our systems for the best outcomes under the circumstances we face?

In my view you must have rich data to make good decisions. The more accurate and timely data you can gather, the more you can analyse, optimise and manage all of the intersecting challenges. Without data, I don’t believe you can do this in any meaningful way.

With respect to data, the world of waste has been managed to date almost blindly.  Absence of reliable and meaningful data has been epidemic across the waste management sector.

The waste management industry is still a reactive business that has done its best to build new treatment facilities to cope with demand.  It has also put more sophisticated vehicles on the road to collect and transport the ever increasing and diverse wastes that society generates across our congested cities.

Without good data, the industry has had no option but to be reactive and this has left the people in charge of dealing with waste in an ongoing series of battles – often lost – to manage this headache.

In my view it’s time to reimagine what’s possible going forwards for the industry and the customers we serve. Technology, analytics, big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) have arrived in the waste management industry and they enable us to consider different ways forward. They’re already bringing new levels of data, accuracy, transparency and efficiency, but the possibilities are enormous and far beyond where we stand at present.

Today our customers have bought into this new technology driven model based initially on the financial Return on Investment (ROI) from efficiencies and savings based on reduction of collections. But after few months of understanding the system, they are appreciating equally the insight data gives them into multiple aspects of the business. Insights include sustainability reporting, redistribution of bins, asset mapping and tracking, realignment of work force, reduction in customer complaints, impact on traffic in some congested places and positive feedback from citizens as they noticed the changes.

As an example of these new possibilities, imagine mandating that bins can only be collected when they’re full. Some forward thinking cities and customers are now considering a penalty on commercial bins collected if not above certain fill level. How would this impact on the number of trucks needed to operate in the most congested areas of our cities? Without technology how can you achieve this accurately and cost effectively on an ongoing basis?

Technology applied well can absolutely change the way we do what we do. It can help us do a better job of the things we’re best at for our customers, even in the difficult environment we face. Many of our customers are already using our system in innovative and creative ways to add value to their communities and neighbourhoods. We believe this is the future and the growing evidence we see in cities around the world is that we’re not the only ones who agree.

[1] For a UK context see

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