'Smart Cities' has become a term that has been used and re-used time after time over the last few years. It is now a term that is at risk of losing meaning, differentiation and the ability to guide innovative and practical local authority policy. It is certainly the case that as a concept, every city wants to be 'smart'. However, what are the tangible outcomes?
At a practical level what can a city do to reduce costs, improve the effectiveness of a universal service, show leadership as well as build local data and innovation capabilities? There are numerous examples that are being suggested such as smartcards in transport and other service delivery, smart energy grids, smart buildings, connectivity, etc, but in this short article, we are focusing on the opportunities presented via the ubiquitous and very necessary waste collection service.
Waste collection is a core responsibility of local authorities across the UK. Usually, contracted out to one of a range of large service providers, the costs of this service as well as the resulting service quality are often a major local issue. In an era of increasingly ambitious waste diversion and recycling targets, local authorities are under pressure to find innovative ways of encouraging residential and business customers to consider the types and amount of waste to be disposed.
Waste collection offers an interesting example as an opportunity to bring cost savings and innovation changes that affect a wide section of the population and, thus create engagement, as well as offers the opportunity for local political leadership. The potential wide impact, may dissuade some from interventions in this area, but the potential for better service outcomes is large.
As a start, waste collection seems to regard each of us as collective producers whether we are at work or at home and it operates through a rotating daily cycle of collections.
With the Internet of Things (IoT) now widely available and smart chips that have become very affordable, it seems that we should be at a point where equipping every waste bin with technology in order to create an intelligent network of receptacles is underway. The data to be collected could include fill rates, time of last collection, whether the receptacle has overturned, etc. We could start by equipping public litterbins, or residential or business wheelie bins. Each could produce useful outcomes. Low cost battery power, or ideally small-scale solar cells, could be used as a power source for such devices.
This rather basic set of data would begin to make some rather standard collections procedures much more efficient. “Intelligence” could be used to enable waste collection control centres to interrogate bins and plan the waste collection process in real time, or at least, much more to reflect current conditions and fill levels. This would generate savings in vehicle travel and personnel as well as reduce polluting emissions. Critically, it could also lead to improved outcomes in street cleanliness as resources would be much better able to be targeted at locations that needed collection or were at risk of creating further street litter.
The database of waste accumulation would also allow a much more intelligent understanding of how litter in an area was being produced and how it could be managed.
While each of these interventions clearly is a cost, it is an increasingly affordable, low technology intervention that brings the smart city to an area of local delivery that seems surely in need of innovation. It also creates a clear route to improved local services and delivery outcomes.
A further way of considering the innovation that could be derived from enabling smart technology in waste collection is to directly empower to producer (resident/business) to have a much clearly understanding of exactly how much they were producing and over what time period. By equipping, for example, wheelie bins with technology to determine volume loading, if not weight, it would be possible to create a new dynamic of discussion about waste collection.
The immediate comment would be that this would mean individuals being charged for how much waste they produce. And, yes, this could be one outcome. However, most residential customers are already restricted to “reasonable” volumes whether this is the size of the bin, or a limited number of extra bags. There is also no benefit or saving offered to 'under production'. In addition, we are charged for consumption/ production in almost every other aspect of our lives - gas, electricity, increasingly water/sewage, food. It does not seem unreasonable to have a charge on waste that relates to production.
But, moving further on, a smart waste eco-system would offer significant advantages to not only having much more accurate data and an understanding of the rate at which waste was produced across a community, but also to having an individual and local neighbourhood understanding and debate about how much waste is being created and what can be done to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Most of us will acknowledge that we probably have no idea how much waste we locally produce, how much waste we are recycling or is this going up or down monthly, seasonally, or annually? The UK wide annual statistic of circa 26 million tonnes of residential waste production has been roughly constant for the last few years, but significant variations exist in local authority recycling rates across the country and often between adjacent authorities.
The lack of any sense of personal responsibility or assessment of individual contributions clearly suppresses personal initiative in taking any, or further, action in waste reduction. We also have no current way of having an informed local community discussion or understanding about the waste we produce and how we can do more to reduce this.
The introduction of smart technology in waste collection could encourage recycling habits as citizens could use a smart card every time they use recycling bins for paper, glass, etc. and be rewarded for their green approach and in proportion to what they redirect from landfill.
In fact, collecting general waste is mandatory and costly for councils. The attitude of recycling and personal responsibility can be instilled with awareness campaigns and by reimbursing people with cash refunds or tax reductions.
In addition, the introduction of a smart waste management would generate new data that could be analysed to better identify habits in different areas of cities and reduce the waste collection frequency. The cost savings could be substantial. In addition, there would be a reduction in need for noisy lorry trips through residential communities.
Unfortunately, in the UK and in Europe this subject is generally not as topical as it is in the US where in May 2014 the magazine Wired published the article: 'How the Internet of garbage cans will remake our future cities'.
During the 7th Framework Programme, the European Commission funded a project named BURBA, 'Bottom up selection, collection and management of Urban Waste'.
The aim of this project was to develop an automatic system that could be used for intelligent waste management. It was based on using RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology to reliably identify individual receptacles, users, single marked items or waste categories, and cell-phone-based LBS’ (location-based service) to allow an easy identification of the geographical position of the most suitable waste container in order to improve its utilization by the citizen. The project ended in Dec 2013, but it didn’t generate much of an ongoing legacy.
In Horizon 2020, the Urban-Waste project was launched in June 2016 aiming to support policy makers in answering these challenges and in developing strategies to reduce the amount of municipal waste production and at further support the re-use, recycle, collection and disposal of waste in tourist cities. In doing so UrBAN-WASTE will adopt and apply the urban metabolism approach in order to support the switch to a circular model where waste is considered as a resource and reintegrated in the urban flow.
This project will end in May 2019.
Advanced, and often low cost technology, is increasingly available to revolutionise aspects of our lives. And, particularly in areas that have remained static for many years. As a society we have already embraced some form of recycling of our waste. The entire process of collecting waste is now ready for further innovation. This should include improved and additional data for short-/mid-term forecasting as well as much more personally relevant data that can encourage a greater personal responsibility for the waste that we produce.
This will potentially require resources in the short term, but offers significant long-term advantages in efficiency and the cost base of waste collection. This also provides local authority leaders and policy makers with a means of bringing relevance, to the intangible topic of 'smart cities', in the daily lives of citizens.
Giles K Bailey is from Stratageeb Limited and Stefano Mainero is from EPN Consulting Limited.