By Valerie Paquin

Waste collection and disposal costs have been rising on an average of 2% a year, and the cost of recycling services is close behind at 1.9%. The waste management industry has been slow to change, but there is room for optimism as new technologies find a foothold.

Thanks to the Internet of Things, we now benefit from computer software networks that communicate easily with each other at vastly increased speeds. Technology is working its way into every aspect of our lives, including the collection and treatment of trash.

A new look at refuse trucks, facilities, practices and even the garbage bins themselves is waking up an industry that until now has progressed sluggishly. The global smart waste collection technology market is expected to grow from $57.6 million in 2016 to more than $223.6 million in 2025.

New techniques and technological applications are increasing revenues and decreasing costs, and that’s good for consumers! Let’s look at some of the newest technologies.

Bins with Brains

Imagine an attractive trash bin that uses solar energy to compact trash and doubles as a wi-fi hot spot. Big Belly has been transforming the waste collection business since 2003. Their smart waste platforms are in operation in communities, on campuses and at companies in more than 50 countries.

Passersby can’t see the garbage, animals can’t get into it, and compaction increases capacity by 500% and prevents unsightly overflows. The trash stations provide real-time insights, analytics and reporting that smart cities can use to their advantage by notifying a central location when the bin is full or when it was last emptied (eliminating odors before they become offensive). With various waste stream options available, garbage collection and recycling costs can be reduced as much as 80 percent.

An add-on security option alerts authorities if the station has been breached; this eliminates the safety precaution of removing trash obstacles during large public events. There is even a provision to stub out cigarettes and dispose of the butts safely. You can add laminate wrap-around graphics and signage for sponsor advertising or special messaging. And yes, the stations can be outfitted with hidden-from-view technology options that turn them into wi-fi hot spots!

Trucks on the Fast Track

Trucks are getting smarter, too. Prescriptive analytics allow the garbage truck to read various data sets alerting the driver to real-time weather and traffic snarls. When added to traditional data such as engine diagnostics and telematics, software can predict a situation and communicate it to the driver. Such software may identify unsafe situations to prevent problems before they happen. It can also assist in customizing training plans to improve driver skills.

Smart trucks use radio-frequency identification to capture information such as bin number and address from a tag adhered to the trash receptacle. The tags help waste management companies manage inventory of bins, keep records of repairs/maintenance and track recycling information that connects to customer rewards programs.

Alternative fuels also play a role. Los Angeles and Sacramento, California, each launched pilot programs using electric refuse trucks. Operating on regular routes over a four month period, L.A.’s battery-operated truck logged more than 5,200 miles and delivered up to four tons of refuse per day, all on a single charge with no maintenance issues. Sacramento’s all-electric left-side loader truck is expected to save 6,000 gallons of fuel per year while reducing toxic diesel fumes.

Driverless trucks may solve the shortage of commercially licensed drivers. Volvo is testing an autonomous refuse truck (watch video) that can operate safely in urban settings. Following a pre-programmed route, the truck travels from one garbage bin to the next, emptying them robotically with human guidance on the ground.

The collection employee can walk beside or behind the truck as it negotiates its way to the next bin. This improves safety and prevents wear-and-tear on knee joints and the strains of heavy lifting; both are common ailments amongst refuse-collection workers. The truck senses objects all around as it navigates tight neighborhood streets and pick-up points. If something passes in front of the truck, such as a child chasing a ball, the truck stops immediately.

Robots that Recycle

Robotics and artificial intelligence are finding their place in materials-recovery facilities. A recent installation of a robotic sorter at Alpine Waste & Recycling in Colorado boasted a picking rate that exceeds the human average by 50%. The robot maintains a stationary position as a conveyor belt delivers recyclables to be sorted. It picks up an object, while a visible-light camera feeds an image to a computer that recognizes the item and directs its correct placement into the waste stream. The more items the robot learns to identify, the smarter it gets.

Not only can the robot work long uninterrupted hours, but its error-free sorting results in higher quality output of recyclable materials. Because the machines prevent human contact with waste, facility workers are safer. Robotic picker accuracy is expected to surpass 98%, which leads to better sale prices for quality-sorted recyclable loads.

Energy from Waste

Landfills emit carbon dioxide, methane, volatile organic compounds and other hazardous pollutants. By converting non-recyclable waste materials and landfill gases into usable heat, electricity or fuel, waste-to-energy conversion (WTE) provides another energy source.

Existing conversion technologies include combustion, anaerobic digestion and landfill gas recovery. Three new technologies—gasification, plasma gasification and pyrolysis—are improving the process by super-heating solid waste in low-oxygen environments.

The global WTE market is projected to grow about 5.9 percent yearly to reach $37.64 billion by 2020, up from $25.3 billion in 2013. In Europe and Japan where there is less space for landfills, WTE conversion outpaces the U.S., but don’t lose heart:

Last week construction began on Utah’s first food WTE facility. It will use anaerobic digesters to grind and liquefy the food waste. Water, heat and bacteria will finish the process. The food waste is turned into methane gas to be used as natural gas, and the bio-solids convert to fertilizer. To learn more about waste-to-energy conversion, visit the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council website.

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