Trash talking: Cities finding smarter ways to collect our waste

Enevo smart waste
© Enevo

Four years ago, the World Bank issued a warning about waste management in our rapidly growing cities. Its Urban Development department projected that the amount of municipal solid waste (MSW) would increase from 1.3 billion tonnes per year to 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025, while the annual global cost of solid waste management would rise from $205 billion to $375 billion.

Developing countries would be especially burdened, the report claimed. “Improving solid waste management, especially in the rapidly growing cities of low-income countries, is becoming a more and more urgent issue,” said Rachel Kyte, vice president of sustainable development at the World Bank.

One solution may lie in finding smarter approaches to waste collection – which represents the largest single cost of municipal waste management (and as much as 61 per cent of MSW in the United States, according to analysts). Meanwhile, the environmental cost of waste collection is incalculable.

Think about it: MSW is typically collected by diesel-fuelled trucks which drive around emptying trashcans regardless of whether they’re full. The more time they spend on the streets, the greater their carbon footprint and production of particulate matter and harmful emissions such as NOx. MSW collection is inefficient, too. If our trashcans aren’t emptied in a timely manner, they tend to overflow – spreading litter throughout the streets.

No wonder, then, that cities are increasingly turning to so-called smart waste solutions. Last month, downtown Brooklyn got its first set of solar-powered trash compactors known as the Bigbelly. which uses smart sensors to know when to begin compacting its belly of trash. It’s also connected to the cloud and so signals when it’s full, “making collection more efficient and reducing the amount of truck traffic needed to service the waste containers.” Recent weeks have seen the Bigbelly pop up as far afield as Leeds, in England, and Queensland, in Australia.

Then there’s Enevo, a Finnish company that has invented a sensor-based solution to municipal waste collection. Its Enevo One system sees small wireless sensors installed on trashcans which provide real-time data on how much waste they contain.

The system not only crunches the data to determine when the trashcan will be full, it also devises the most cost-effective plan for collecting the trash based on the fill-level, waste-collection truck availability, and traffic. It thus saves municipalities time and money, and helps to reduce carbon emissions, road and vehicle wear, and noise and air pollution.

Civil libertarians grumble about the surveillance potential of large data-generating projects. With the Australian city of Adelaide poised to become a smart city laboratory, Civil Liberties Australia’s vice president, Tim Vines, told the Guardian that even seemingly benign devices such as the smart trashcan presents challenges: “If technology could detect the type of rubbish, what if someone tried to dispose of an illicit substance, would it set off an alarm or message the police?” He may have a point. Yet enthusiasm for the Internet of Things – and smart trashcans, in particular – continues unabated.

Copenhagen is the latest metropolis to jump on the bandwagon. In June the Danish capital will install a “Smart Lab” in the city centre “in a bid to become a central hub for the development of sustainable solutions to aid future urban challenges.” According to local media, the Street Lab will use “state-of-the-art measuring sensors and city Wi-Fi to collect data that can provide a unique insight into Copenhagen’s current condition."

One of the highlights, of course, will be smart waste collection. “By using sensors in rubbish bins, we can perhaps plan to keep the city clean in smarter ways than today,” said Morten Kabell, one of city’s deputy mayors. And what spruces up Copenhagen today could help deal with waste around the world tomorrow. Think of it as trash talking, then – but not as we know it.

Tags: Waste

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