Smart waste management: how IoT limits the need for landfills

Smart waste management uses an array of IoT technologies to make trash collection and processing more efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable.
Maggie Murphy
April 26, 2022
Smart waste garbage bins

The United States produces about 268 million tons of trash and waste every year. While everyone can do their part to limit the amount of waste they produce, it’s not necessarily the trash that’s the problem: it’s what we do with it. According to the EPA, there were about 146.1 million tons of municipal waste in landfills in 2018. While the statistics may be startling, the good news is that there’s a solution: smart waste management.

What Is smart waste management?

Smart waste management isn’t just one thing but rather the combination of many different things. In general, smart waste management is understood as anything that uses technology to improve waste management. What this really means is that smart waste management is more efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly compared to traditional waste management, all thanks to technology.

Generally, smart waste management uses IoT devices, which are objects with sensors, processing abilities, and software that analyze and transmit data in real time.

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Why is smart waste management beneficial?

In general, smart waste management improves three distinct areas: efficiency, cost, and environmental impact. Let’s look at these three with a simple fictional example: a small neighborhood and a trash collection service.

  • Efficient: Let’s say there is a 10-house neighborhood, and a trash collection service is sending out a driver once a day to check if there’s any trash to collect. With a smart system, sensors would eliminate the need for a person to continually make trips to the neighborhood. Instead, they’d be notified when bins are full, making waste collection more efficient for everyone involved.
  • Cost-effective: Now, let’s pretend that the waste management company spends $500 per week to hire someone to check the neighborhood’s trash regularly. As such, the neighborhood is charged $700 a week for this service. With a more efficient smart system, the company wouldn’t have to pay an employee for useless trips, and their schedule could be better organized to make more efficient use of less time. In this way, the company spends less, and the neighborhood is charged a lower fee and saves money too.
  • Environmentally friendly: Now, let’s say the driver has picked up the trash from the neighborhood for the week and brings it back to a waste management facility. There, recycling robots analyze the trash using AI and automatically separate recyclables from those that aren’t. This also saves the company money and ensures less waste ends up in landfills.

Of course, this is just a simple example, and not many neighborhoods hire their own private waste management company, but you get the idea. Imagine systems like this happening across the country and globe, and just think of the impact it could make. Every year, we dump 139.6 million pounds of waste into landfills, and about 26.82 million tons of that is plastic. According to a study by The World Bank, global waste will increase by 70% by 2050 unless urgent action is taken. There are a few reasons for this, but the main culprit is a growing population, increasing urbanization, and greater economic growth.

How is waste currently collected and processed?

Usually, garbage collectors follow the same route every day and collect containers without actually knowing what they’ll find when they get there. That means drivers will collect half-full bins at some stops, and at others, the bins will be overflowing. Some households and businesses may not need regular pick-ups, but others may be dealing with overflowing bins left to sit and sit until the day their driver is scheduled to make the rounds.

As you’ve probably caught on by now, this system is highly inefficient. It wastes time and results in increased fuel consumption from garbage trucks and taxed resources. This process also costs a lot of money, which usually comes out of city budgets. For example, in New York City, the local government spends about $1.5 billion annually on trash collection and waste management.

With the way our trash management system currently works, most of our waste ends up in landfills, even waste that could be disposed of differently. For example, even though most food can be composted, it makes up 24% of landfill materials.

In some cases, waste management professionals will manually separate recyclables from other trash, but this isn’t a perfect science. And other services don’t do this at all. This means that if people don’t separate their trash from recyclables, it’s likely no one will.

Of course, there was a time when this type of waste management made sense. But the world is evolving, and so should these outdated processes. We have the tools and technology to do better, and investing in IoT technologies is the way to do it.

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IoT waste management technologies

We’ve talked about a few types of smart tools, including waste level sensors and recycling robots, which could both be used to improve waste management. However, those aren’t the only possibilities. In general, many of these solutions collect, analyze, or make use of data to make smarter decisions around how waste is collected. Let’s look at these IoT waste management technologies and others in more detail.

Smart waste receptacles

These technology-driven bins ensure waste is sorted correctly by using the power of AI to recognize and separate different types of waste. One Polish company, Bin-E, is already making strides in this area, creating a smart bin that recognizes waste, sorts it into the correct category, such as glass or plastic, compresses the waste, and monitors fill level. The company estimates this results in 80% lower waste management costs and improved employee time management and efficiency by 70%.

Waste level sensors

Waste level sensors are an optimal way to implement a smart waste management system. Sensors measure and track the amount of waste in a bin and send that information to collection services. This not only alerts the service when the bins are full but also allows them to better predict and time routes based on the average time it takes for the bins to fill up. Ecube Labs estimates that implementing waste level sensors and a fill-level monitoring platform can reduce costs by up to 50%. This can be particularly helpful in cities with tighter budgets or any that are looking to use resources more efficiently.

AI recycling robots

Using the power of artificial intelligence technology robots are able to separate recycling waste from other waste. This means things that can be reused, particularly plastic, go to the facilities that can remake them instead of landfills where they likely won’t get touched again. This technology helps eliminate human error and cuts costs for businesses that don’t have the manpower to hire someone to sort through trash.

One company, AMP Robotics, designed a three-arm robot that can analyze and sort 80 items of waste per minute. This is about twice as fast as human sorters, which makes a significantly more efficient recycling process.

Garbage truck load monitoring

If it makes sense to put sensors in bins to monitor waste levels, it’s only logical to do the same with garbage trucks themselves. By monitoring the waste levels in a truck, this data can help better predict fill levels and minimize collection trips. Analyzing this data over time means planners can save costs by better planning truck routes.

Additionally, Technoton, a company that creates these monitors, mentions this technology can also solve other problems truck companies face, including accurate fuel monitoring, theft prevention, remote engine and equipment diagnostics, and detecting when items are unloaded in places they shouldn’t be.

Pneumatic waste disposal bins

When garbage trucks drive out to collect and dispose of waste, they release harmful chemicals into the air. While we’ve already discussed some ways IoT can help solve this problem, it may also be possible to take trucks and vehicles completely out of the equation. On Roosevelt Island in New York City, residents throw their trash down garbage chutes where it sits in an inlet until IoT sensors determine a certain level of waste has been reached. Then the trash is automatically sent through pneumatic tubes underground to a central automated vacuum-assisted compacting facility.

In this particular scenario, truck mileage is reduced by 80%, which also reduces all of the greenhouse gas emissions that would be released if this system weren’t in place.

Solar-powered trash compactors

Another way to reduce greenhouse emissions from garbage trucks is to reduce how frequently they have to collect trash. Ecube, the same company that makes waste level sensors, created a solar-powered trash compactor called CleanCUBE. This bin, though roughly the size of a traditional bin, can hold up to 5 times more waste than your standard bin. By using solar energy to power the machine, it crushes the garbage, increasing storage and reducing pick up frequency by up to 80%.

E-waste kiosks

Electronics can be a major source of waste (called e-waste) and have to be disposed of properly. Phones, tablets, and MP3 players, among other electronic devices, contain toxic and hazardous materials, including lead, arsenic, and mercury, which are bad for environmental and human health if not recycled correctly.

ecoATM is on a mission to improve this problem with its e-waste kiosks that collect and value old electronics, then pay users cash on the spot. These devices use smart technology to determine the condition of the device and ensure it gets disposed of correctly. Products like these are definitely in great need, in fact, e-waste represents less than 2% of trash in American landfills, yet is responsible for 70% of toxic waste.

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Smart cities that have implemented smart waste management solutions

This technology isn’t the future, it’s the present. There are already many major cities implementing smart waste management solutions in their communities. Let’s take a look at a few.

  • San Francisco: Smart trash cans are being deployed to create a better waste ecosystem. The city first started placing Bigbelly trash cans throughout the community in 2018. These receptacles monitor waste levels, and there are even options with solar-powered compactor technology.
  • Songdo, South Korea: You won’t see any garbage trucks driving around Songdo. Instead, the city has a pneumatic waste disposal system, similar to the one on Roosevelt Island.
  • Amsterdam: One of Europe’s smartest cities, the community introduced garbage truck load monitoring in 2014. The city also deployed 12,500 fill-level sensors in trash cans throughout the urban area.
  • New York: Bigbelly trash cans can also be found throughout Manhattan in New York City. In addition to monitoring waste and collecting data, they also act as WiFi hotspots for people close to the container.

Recommended reading: Everything you need to know about IoT smart cities

IoT Is the Key to Smart Waste Management and a Greener Future

IoT is the key to unlocking all of the benefits of countless smart waste management solutions. Hologram’s global sim card with automatic carrier switching makes it easier than ever to connect and implement your smart waste system. Get started today.

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