Bins With Brains: IoT for Smarter Waste Management
Waste collection and management is an essential service that customers take for granted — until bins overflow or alleys and curbs are piled high with trash. Failures can generate public outrage and threaten the bottom line.
These high stakes create intense pressure in the already financially stressed waste management industry. Companies must manage the high costs of buying, operating, and maintaining large fleets of vehicles, and labor costs add up quickly since much of the work is still managed by hand. Meanwhile, the world is generating more waste with every passing year. In the U.S. the volume of waste generated increased by 9% in 2018, up by 23.7 million tons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Raising collection rates is often necessary to manage competing demands, but there is a ceiling to what can be charged.
Often, waste management strategies focus on what happens when trash arrives at a landfill, but pickups and in-transit costs also provide companies and governments with areas for possible untapped efficiencies. Increasingly, waste management companies are looking to automation and sensor technology, such as the internet of things (IoT), to manage these higher waste volumes and keep costs from spiraling out of control.
Garbage collection is a tedious process riddled with inefficiencies. The standard approach of predefined routes and days means that trucks empty bins whether they are full or nearly empty. Many of those stops are a waste of fuel, time, and labor — each of which adds significant costs.
The failure to segregate recyclables from trash also hurts the bottom line and ultimately shortens the lifespan of landfills. Unsegregated waste is all but useless to recyclers. While some waste can be sorted at the destination, the process is inefficient and expensive — a problem that was exacerbated by China’s 2018 ban on importing and processing foreign recyclables.
Collection and segregation alone contribute significantly to the waste management industry’s inefficiencies, costs, and sustainability concerns. The emergence and increasing adoption of IoT and data analysis, however, now offer data-driven solutions that weren’t cost effective just a few years ago.
A little sensor goes a long way
It seems like every object — from mobile phones to homes to toasters — is now available in a “smart” version. It is only a matter of time before this happens with trash bins. Ultrasonic and proximity-based sensors can tell collection trucks which bins are full, calculate the level of segregation, and determine whether a driver should stop or keep going. Larger bins can also use weight sensors to track fill levels.
Fleet operations can use this information to track their vehicles and reroute them in real time. Combining this data with a scheduling application can allow teams to create highly optimized collection plans and anticipate what to expect, even weeks in advance.
Bins with integrated garbage compactors can further increase efficiency by storing more garbage in the same space and allowing collection vehicles to make fewer stops while picking up the same amount of garbage. When this waste reaches sorting facilities, technology can increase efficiency there too. Cameras equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision algorithms can identify streams that need to be segregated — at speeds beyond the capabilities of humans. These advances can also improve the quality of segregation and increase the value of recyclables by 200% to 300%. Ultimately, this technology helps improve revenue while also reducing staffing costs.
The industry is now experimenting with versions of these AI systems that can be installed inside garbage bins and trucks to identify segregation levels during the collection process. This data can inform operators how waste is collected and where it should go. It can also provide insight into waste generation in different neighborhoods or cities.
Sensors are a clear solution to many of the waste management industry’s efficiency problems, but the benefits don’t stop there. The same technology can also create an array of new opportunities and services.
Insights: Awareness and revenue - Besides optimizing routes, data points from smart bins can allow companies and governments to determine which customers produce the most waste and when that is most likely to happen. The data can also point to which customers fail to segregate waste altogether. Authorities could then use this data for targeted education or awareness efforts. Or if that doesn’t work, customers could be charged a higher rate or additional fees to compensate for the increased costs.
Privatized services - Waste management companies can also help clients track their data, identify patterns, and find solutions to manage or, better yet, reduce the amount of waste generated. A mall or a large office building that produces huge amounts of plastic and cardboard could work with a waste management company to identify solutions, such as moving to reusable cutlery or in-house recycling. The goal is to reduce costs through lower waste volumes.
Reinventing with IoT - To take full advantage of sensor technology, organizations need new tools and capabilities to analyze the data and use it in ways that are scalable and provide long-term value.
IoT platforms can help organizations collect and unify data from multiple sources while also making it available to stakeholders. For instance, garbage truck drivers can be provided with notifications via a mobile device that show which bins they can skip, allowing them to dynamically reroute the vehicle’s path. These real-time adjustments can save time and costs by reducing unnecessary stops.
Figure 1. IoT-powered waste management
Powerful big data and analytics platforms can crunch vast quantities of data to help spot patterns and identify opportunities to improve the efficiency of fleets. And dashboards can allow staff to oversee and manage all operations in real time to meet more demanding collection targets while also lowering their carbon footprint.
The real-time nature of how waste management companies utilize data is the industry’s next frontier. While automation has been a part of this value chain for some time, it’s true power will only be realized when companies can gather insights and respond to them instantaneously.
New technologies that have transformed high tech manufacturers, telecommunications companies, and logistics firms offer new opportunities for the waste management industry. With the right expertise and help, these companies can identify efficiencies that were never before possible — from the alley to the landfill. Ultimately, this transformation can power leaner fleets, greener operations, and a digitally driven enterprise.