FOOD WASTE: “Smart Technology” Promises to Revolutionize Recycling

Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Linda Breggin

Senior Attorney; Director of the Center for State, Tribal, and Local Environmental Programs

Imagine the dumpsters behind restaurant row in your community signaling their hauling company to come pick them up because they are full and about to overflow, or their food is rotting and about to stink up the neighborhood. Such are the promises for waste management of new “smart technologies,” based on sensors, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, big data, and social networks. In prior posts, we highlighted how smart technologies can help food waste generators and their communities reduce food waste and donate edible food.

In this post, we consider the adoption of new information technology (IT) tools that have the potential to manage waste containers and vehicle fleets more efficiently and sustainably (as part of the “Internet of things”), as well as tools to improve the efficiency of markets for recycling and reuse of waste products. These tools provide generators with the information (“you manage what you measure”) and the financial incentives to reduce waste and increase recycling. For food and other organic wastes, this means diverting the waste from landfills to composting or anaerobic digestion, and recovering energy and nutrient products for subsequent reuse.

A number of new technology firms are revolutionizing waste management with these new IT tools. Reflecting the greater emphasis on landfill diversion in Europe, leading firms Enevo, AMCS, and Smartbin are headquartered in Europe; whereas, Compology and Rubicon Global are U.S.-based. Several of them, including Rubicon and Enevo, have expanded their focus beyond providing technologies to waste and recycling firms, to providing waste management services directly to generators, helping them achieve efficiencies and reduce waste.

A key new product is a system of “smart bins” outfitted with sensors and RFID technology and linked to big-data tools that can detect how full bins are and predict when they will be at capacity. With that information, fleet management programs designed to optimize hauler routes in real-time can schedule pickups on as-needed basis (as well as make adjustments for traffic and other unanticipated problems). Further, the linked big data tools provide comprehensive reports to their customers, including wastes generated, their disposition, associated costs, and sustainability indicators – which allows commercial, hauler, or municipal customers to make more informed decisions.

The scope of information collected by different systems is continuously evolving. Several companies are currently developing sensors to detect the type of waste, hazardous materials, and even odors from fermenting organics (to predict when that restaurant dumpster will go stinky). Compology mounts cameras in their bin system, which allows haulers to detect contamination in bins—a growing problem for food waste haulers, as post-consumer waste is increasingly supplied as feedstock for composting. With this information, haulers can identify which customers along their route supplied contaminated loads, provide them with guidance to address the problem, and avoid the rejection of the loads by processing facilities. AMCS includes in its systems truck-mounted scales, which weigh the waste collected from individual customers. On-truck scales have not yet been extensively deployed as part of fleet management systems because they have been costly and hard to keep calibrated. However, AMCS’ Mark Abbas argues that the most recent technology is cost-effective and that it is time to use such scales for levying weight-based waste pricing.

In its role as a broker for all of the waste streams generated by its customers in the retail, food service, and hospitality industries, Rubicon Global has created another useful IT tool -- national, web-based auction sites for the waste sector. These bidding networks increase the opportunities for waste haulers and processors to compete for business from waste generators, and for processors to resell waste products for recycling and reuse to the highest bidder. By leveraging these national networks, Rubicon has created additional business opportunities for its haulers and processors, for example, connecting Natural Upcycling hauling company and its farm-based anaerobic digesters with Wegman’s grocery stores, which allows them to grow and expand to new markets. 

Enevo Smart Plans, image courtesy of Enevo
Image courtesy of Enevo

Using smart technologies to optimize commercial collection routes creates hauler efficiencies that potentially yield substantial cost savings. Reducing total miles driven reduces the number of vehicle routes needed each day, which increases productivity and lowers labor, fuel, and maintenance costs, as well as vehicle fleet size. Compology estimates that its route optimization system can reduce the time its clients’ trucks are on the road by 40%, and their hauling costs by 40-50%.

These smart technology applications also enable the creation of solid waste pricing for generators that is more closely aligned to their actual supply of waste. With these new systems, generators can have the information and the financial incentives to reduce waste and increase recycling in order to lower waste management costs. 

Commercial customers served by private haulers already typically pay per-unit fees for waste based on container volume with set pick-up schedules. With scales, generators are charged only for the weight they dispose. But even with volume-based charges, in smart bin collection systems, generators are charged per-tip (i.e. when their bin is emptied) as opposed to a regular schedule, so that charges based on container size are more closely aligned with the actual volume of waste.

In contrast, residential customers served by municipal solid waste agencies are typically charged a fixed fee for waste management, independent of usage. The new smart systems ease adoption of unit-based pricing (sometimes referred to as “pay-as-you-throw,” or PAYT), which has reduced waste disposed and increased recycling in community after community. Of course, communities have implemented PAYT without smart bin technologies, based on specially printed bags or cans of specific volumes. The recent experience of Grand Rapids MI, an early adopter of PAYT, however, illustrates the potential for gains from shifting from a bag-and-tag refuse program to a tip-based, volume-pricing program. In the first year after adoption of RFID-based carts, recycling increased by 10% and waste disposal declined by 8%. The community expects the investment payback period to be five years, due to an annual cost savings of $1.3 million, primarily from avoiding costs for printing and distributing refuse bags.

Smart technologies also have positive direct effects on environmental sustainability. For example, greater efficiencies in managing food waste bins and vehicles and expanded composting and anaerobic digestion result in reduced traffic on roads, lower greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants from landfills, and fuel use, as well as increased renewable energy and recycling of soil nutrients. But, IT adoption also has negative environmental impacts from upstream mining and production pollution, high energy demand for computing, and challenging downstream waste products (referred to as e-waste). Further, RFID tags currently are neither biodegradable nor recyclable. It will be important to conduct life-cycle analyses to understand the full environmental impact of these technologies and develop strategies to mitigate harm.

At this point in time, adoption of smart bin systems lags in the United States is limited, lagging behind Europe. Their use for food waste is further constrained by the limited number of source-separated collection systems, though the potential is expanding as a growing number of communities and private haulers provide separate collections. As challenges associated with cost and with the organizational culture change required for adoption are addressed, adoption will grow.

Carol, Linda, and Emmett work on the Food Waste Initiative at ELI. Other blogs in the ELI food waste series can be found here.