By Megan R. Nichols
According to the United Nations’ (UN) estimates, almost 70% of the global population will be living in cities by 2050. Global citizenry also continues to grow at a rapid pace — and with it, the consumption of resources. Soon, urban areas may have to radically change how they approach waste management as increased urbanization and growing populations create more and more garbage.
While green waste management techniques like recycling exist, they’re often underutilized. Americans, for example, generate more than 260 million tons of trash each year, only around 34% of which is recycled. This rate is steadily rising but has plateaued over the last few years — leaving city officials to look for new ways to encourage people to recycle.
At the same time, urban waste management is often sub-optimized. In most cities, waste collection happens on a regular schedule with fixed routes because sanitation workers cannot know if a bin is full or empty on a given day. As a result, these workers spend a lot of time emptying bins that are only partly full. Worse, if routes are not frequent enough, they can miss overflowing containers, which creates hygiene issues.
Smart cities may be able to change this issue. These municipalities are tech-driven, using networks of data-collecting smart devices to drive policy, automatically adjust systems like traffic signal timing and improve citizen welfare. Over the past few years, as researchers have developed new kinds of smart city technology, major urban areas around the globe have begun using advanced waste management platforms to overhaul their strategies.
Using Smart Tech to Improve Waste Management
A few different cities have already used smart technology to make waste management more efficient. For the most part, smart trash cans and compactors have become the foundation of data-driven waste management.
These cans come outfitted with photo sensors that track how much trash is inside. Once the waste reaches a certain threshold, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) on the outside of the container will light up, signifying that it needs emptying. This setup allows sanitation workers to skip nearly-empty bins or prioritize those that are almost full. It also helps individuals avoid overflowing containers.
Seoul was one of the first cities to begin implementing this kind of smart waste management tech. In 2014, the city installed 85 Clean Cubes — solar-powered smart trash compactors — in particularly crowded areas of the city center. Within a few months, the city reduced waste collection costs by 83%.
In 2016, Singapore followed Seoul’s example and introduced similar tech. Singapore’s smart waste bins, however, also double as free-to-access Wi-Fi hotspots. Many smart cities have attempted to launch free Wi-Fi hotspots in the past but struggled with the costs of powering these units. With these smart waste bins, cities can take advantage of the solar panels that are already powering trash compactors to provide free public Wi-Fi.
Today, Singapore has more than 7,000 of these smart waste compactors installed throughout the city.
Several other urban areas — including Hong Kong, London and Santander, Spain — have installed smart tech in the years since.
Encouraging Recycling and Sustainable Waste Management
Other places use tools that integrate data from bin sensors with city systems, allowing sanitation workers to optimize their waste collection routes and encourage sustainable habits, like recycling.
Turkish waste management company Evreka implements one of these solutions. Their bins include sensors that collect information about fullness — like those in Singapore and Seoul — as well as data on temperature and location. Better data can help organizations and city planners identify which areas are taking advantage of initiatives and which are not — allowing them to target low-performing sections more effectively.
One of Evreka’s clients — Parkcam, a Turkish glass company — uses the company’s tech to identify which neighborhoods are recycling the most and least. Parkcam then uses that data to inform outreach programs that encourage recycling.
Over the past few years, recycled materials have quickly become a popular material for new goods. Scrap aluminium, for example, is extremely valuable — to the point where three-quarters of all aluminium ever produced remains in circulation. Companies that rely on scrap or recycled materials can work with cities to implement this tech and bring in resources that would have otherwise gone to a landfill.
Over time, smart waste management platforms can use data collected by bins to plan how many garbage trucks need to be assigned to a specific route. These optimizations can reduce the workload on sanitation workers and boost efficiency. With the right data in place, city waste collection operations can decrease fuel consumption by up to 55%.
Some municipalities are also experimenting with different methods of data collection. In Arlington, Virginia, for example, the city’s Solid Waste Bureau has struggled to track which households and commercial facilities are following regulations that mandate recycling.
To monitor successes and failures, the city has begun collecting data from new radio frequency identification (RFID) tags attached to all the carts used for recycling collection. While the city hasn’t applied this information yet, it hopes to use it in the future as it works toward a goal of 90% waste diversion by 2038.
How Smart Cities Use Technology to Overhaul Waste Management
Waste management is a massive problem for most cities — and one that is likely to grow more pressing as global urbanization continues. Smart city tech already optimizes waste management routes and encourage more people to recycle. As these innovations become more advanced, planners may find even more solutions to improve waste management.
While adoption has been slowed by a lack of awareness about the tech’s effectiveness, several other cities have plans to pick up smart bins and waste management platforms soon. There are also signs that we may soon see massive growth in the use of smart waste management tech. According to a report from Research and Markets, the smart waste collection market is expected to be worth more than $4.66 billion by the end of 2026.
Megan R. Nichols