High-Tech Trash: Creating Greener Cities with Smarter Waste Management

April 10, 2019

In today’s world, every city wants to be cleaner, greener, and more sustainable. The path to this goal starts at the most basic level—the management of a city’s waste and recycling in a timely and efficient manner. This is one of the core functions of a well-run city.

A big challenge in the world of waste and recycling is having the materials picked up efficiently, and getting the garbage and recycling trucks off the road as quickly as possible. All of this contributes to a more sustainable community.

The smartest run cities are those that anticipate the needs of citizens before they call—whether they’re calling about a missed pickup or a pothole on their street that has been a consistent daily annoyance. With city and state budgets constantly being squeezed as city tax revenues become tighter, cities today are required to do more with less.

Enter the world of technology and trash

This year will be a watershed moment for the smart cities movement, as technology companies will be forced to demonstrate return on investment (ROI) on an accelerated time horizon. Those products and services that are low cost, leverage existing city assets, and focus relentlessly on process improvement for city systems will be the big winners in 2019. It’s no longer about the ‘coolest’ concepts; but instead, about what actually works to change lives for the better. 

This can only be achieved if the public works and sustainability departments of a city are on the same page. By shifting to a technology-based, data-driven model, public works departments can achieve greater operational efficiency and drive better customer service. By committing to collect and analyze data from the field, sustainability departments can develop better recycling, zero waste, and resiliency policies. Technology can bring these two departments of city government together, ensuring that they are oriented towards delivering more effective service and more sustainable outcomes.

Reducing contamination from the recycling stream

For cities, recycling is a complex and costly issue. One way that a city can improve its recycling efficiency is by having a cleaner recycling stream and by educating its residents about what can and can’t be recycled, so a whole load of recycling doesn’t become contaminated by non-recyclable materials.

City residents want to do the right thing. They reuse items where we can and they try not to consume needlessly. In short, they’re aspirational recyclers. But it’s one thing to think that something should be recyclable, or to wish that it was, and it’s another thing for it to actually be recyclable. More often than not, this former approach leads to contamination of the whole load.

So, what if you digitized the waste audit experience? If a home or business is constantly contaminating their recycling, whether through ill-intent or a simple lack of education, how about using analytics collected through photo recognition and digital matching technology to identify where these chronic contamination sites are located, and what partners in government can do to change this behavior—ideally through education.

Roaming data collection centers

Great service flourishes when customers and the vendors and service providers with whom they work have a close and intimate relationship. When you work with independent waste and recycling hauling companies, you give them a clear vested interest in the success of their customers, while providing their customers with a hauler that is going to go above and beyond to meet their needs. On the other end of the spectrum, larger waste and recycling companies typically view themselves as a utility—something their customers will have to continue paying for—regardless of the quality of their service.

However, this isn’t all local haulers can do. The waste service vehicle is the only vehicle in the world that goes down every street of a city at least once a week. It doesn’t discriminate by zip code, district, or any number of other factors. It simply goes to every home and every business, once a week, or once every few days, on a regimented schedule. It is the only vehicle that covers this much ground.

Waste and recycling haulers are the eyes and ears of a city, and with the use of technology, they can be transformed into roaming data collection centers. They can look for signs that the community is going in the wrong direction (such as increases in illegal dumping, graffiti, and abandoned homes), or in the right direction, as a neighborhood begins to clean up its act—no pun intended. Street mapping technology can be integrated with real-time photographic evidence to enable the garbage truck to transmit data on physical road conditions, infrastructure, and cleanliness.

Technology can identify these issues, and in so doing, inform a city about how to create a long-term strategic plan to address and clean up these communities. From fallen power lines and missing street signs, to the ubiquitous potholes that plague city streets around the world, for the home and business owners living and working in these neighborhoods, these are the issues that color their daily lives—and the health of a community comes down to its ability to recognize these issues before they become bigger problems.

What is needed

Technology exists today that can give government officials, sustainability managers, and haulers the waste and recycling data they need—right at their fingertips. Look for a platform and vendor that provides comprehensive waste data in three key areas, which enable cities to reduce operating expenses, divert waste from landfills, implement or improve recycling programs, track key metrics, and work towards long-term sustainability goals.

Neighborhood-specific analytics: By pinpointing specific neighborhoods that have lagging recycling rates, cities can focus efforts in the most efficient and effective way. These sorts of data points can improve standing in various sustainability and resiliency indices, as well as open up new state and federal grant opportunities.

Data-driven decision making: Route optimization, hauler mileage logging, landfill tonnage recording, landfill diversion rates, recycling contamination rates, auto-confirmation of service, vehicle tracking, and route history—all of which allow cities to make better decisions.

Real-time data sets: Access to innumerable real-time data sets, ranging from mileage and transit times, to weight ticket information, to container management. This data helps city leaders improve efficiencies and optimize their processes.

The future

A greener, smarter city is a city that works for everyone, not just those at the very top. So many cities are aspiring to important sustainability goals, whether it be zero-waste, reducing carbon emissions, or continuing to clean their air and their water. It takes so many things to achieve these lofty goals, but surely one of them, perhaps one of the most important, is for a city to lead by example.

Ultimately the businesses and the residents of a city will be the ones that will bring about the change. They will be the ones that reduce the waste in their homes and their businesses, and, in time, reduce their personal carbon footprints. But they look to their governments to lead by example.

When cities partner with sustainable businesses they show the city’s residents and businesses what is possible and what is profitable in a sustainable economy. More importantly, they set an example of the right thing to do for the environment and the next generation.

Michael Allegretti is the Chief Public Strategy Officer at Rubicon Global, a technology company that powers a digital marketplace, provides a suite of SaaS products for waste, recycling and smart city solutions, and collects and analyzes data for businesses and governments worldwide.

[Editor's note: this article originally appeared here.]