Recycling and the Cloud

A research paper produced by the UK government's Department of Business Innovation and Skills has identified waste as an area where there is a large potential for smart solutions.

A research paper produced by the UK government's Department of Business Innovation and Skills has identified waste as an area where there is a large potential for smart solutions. But just what are those 'smart' solutions? And how can they be best applied by the waste and recycling industry in urban areas?

by Jim Baird

That the waste sector should be highlighted as a candidate for smart solutions - alongside water, energy transport and assisted living - reflects the widely held view that waste is the fourth utility. While waste and recycling services operate across both rural and urban environments, it is often highly urbanised cities which offer the biggest challenges in collection and recycling - and therefore greater opportunities in the adoption of smart solutions.

The paper, The Smart City Market: Opportunities for the UK, produced for the UK's Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), also highlights the current lack of smart technology being used in the waste industry.

Examples of such technology include smart public bins, RFID tagging, GPS, automated waste collection (underground pipework) and the mechanical separation of waste. Much of this smart technology is used to drive efficiency savings in the collection of waste.

While we have witnessed significant use of IT in the transport sector, where we can track deliveries online at any time, waste is effectively a reverse logistics process, without the supporting IT infrastructure.

What are smart cities?

While many cities such as San Francisco, Vienna, Boston, and Seoul are regarded as smart city leaders, there is no single definition for what a smart city is. However, it could be argued that a smart city is one where the intelligent and integrated use of technology and information enables it to function more efficiently and create a better quality of living for its citizens.

Data capture

In developed countries almost all waste from cities is weighed for invoice or tax purposes, and therefore we might expect that such data can be processed and made available to citizens. In the UK at least, the reality is that we fall well short of this

But what about the future for this sector? In a smart city environment the citizen may want to know what happens to their waste, in the same way they want to know about water or energy consumption. Two distinct approaches can emerge depending on future policies

At household level in-cab tracking and logging of RFID tagged bin technology already exists, and through on-board weighing will provide a citizen-centric approach to collecting waste data. This enables the implementation of Pay As You Throw (PAYT) policies - one of the most effective ways of engaging the public in waste reduction and recycling programmes.

However, many city residents share communal bins and an alternative fixed charging system needs to operate in parallel. Here citizens will be able to see how much waste they produce and what happens to it.

At the route level, since waste is mainly charged for by weight, this information currently exists. This is effectively aggregated waste data for the 1000 or so households on each collection route. For this situation, the citizen will have to accept that their waste performance can at best be reported by neighbourhood or route.

This is a simplistic view of how waste data is collected, and open data developers fail to recognise the wider complexity of waste collection systems. Citizens can have a number of collection services – recycling, food waste, garden waste and residual waste, each generating data at the route level.

This highly integrated approach presents its own challenges to making sense of waste and recycling statistics. In the UK most councils operate a complex spaghetti spreadsheet approach to managing waste data, with information being provided by different contractors in different formats, and data coming from waste collected from the doorstep, drop-off centres or public recycling facilities.

This fragmented approach to data is an inevitable consequence of a rather complex system and we shouldn't therefore be too surprised that there are few examples, if any, of intelligent systems working with waste data.

Before making the investment in the smart solutions needed it is worth asking who might make use of the data?.

First the citizen who might want to engage more effectively with the waste and recycling service. Second, with national recycling targets to achieve, the government will need aggregated data. And finally, city waste managers need to know collection systems are performing.

Top tips

For the UK, smart waste management systems are still some time off. But in the meantime what can we do to bring forward smart technologies?

Maximise the granularity of every piece of data. The point of weighing provides the most granularity. This becomes the most basic piece of information. Subsequent aggregation without correctly tagging the data, results in information loss.

Record where the waste came from. At a minimum, the weight, the date and the route or activity from which the waste came needs to be recorded – otherwise information is lost. Often a weighbridge operator will assume where load has come from and wrongly code it, or the driver provides the wrong route. Up to 10% of weighbridge tickets from routes can contain wrong data and any further analysis of this data is likely to be wrong.

Provide data analysis training. Often waste staff inherit the management of waste data, with little prior training in the handling of waste data. No local authority would send a driver out without the necessary training, yet a level of competence is presumed for waste officers.

Require a consistent reporting format from contractors. At contract renewal time take the opportunity to consider carefully what format the data should be provided.

Develop a systems approach. Most waste data systems are evolved from spreadsheets developed by previous co-workers, these often have legacy issues and a database approach is better suited. Indeed the longer term aim of publically available data held in the cloud requires a database approach.

Conclusion

So despite the view that the waste and recycling industry is well placed to exploit smart solutions, data remains a significant challenge to city waste managers. The industry is data rich but information poor. Unless the building blocks are put in place where each piece of data is consistently recorded with key information and forms the basis of a systematic approach, we will struggle to put smart waste solutions in place.

Jim Baird is Professor in the School of Engineering and the Built Environment at Glasgow Caledonian University and Director or Green Oak Solutions, an environmental software company.