Getting Smart About Trash

Local governments are turning to data-driven tools to meet growing waste management challenges.
September 18, 2018
Trucks in a landfill
(TNS/Raleigh News & Observer/Chris Seward)
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program
By Wyatt Cmar  |  Contributor
Research assistant and writer for the Project on Municipal Innovation Advisory Group

Disposing of municipal solid waste presents a big, expensive challenge for local governments. The world's cities produce over a billion tons of waste a year, and annual solid waste management costs exceed $200 billion globally. Yet until recently sanitation agencies lacked the detailed data necessary to significantly improve how they handle recycling, monitor third-party contractors, and route, schedule and protect the safety of their own workers.

In addition, local governments in the United States now must confront a drop in the value of recyclables due in large part to the import restrictions China began imposing last year on plastics, paper and other materials. As a result, the U.S. waste management industry -- government agencies and the companies with which they contract -- has been left with more financial pressure and more waste on its hands. Policymakers have had to become more efficient while finding new ways to consolidate the excess materials going to landfills or find new markets for recyclables.

Atlanta is one city leading the way in its use of data to improve results in both efficiency and sustainability. The city's Department of Public Works and its Office of Resiliency began by placing smartphones in 89 sanitation trucks and other vehicles as part of a pilot program. With the use of an application designed to track truck routes, the city was able to ensure that workers were evenly distributed and taking the most efficient routes to the appropriate landfills and recycling facilities.

As the software and the city's use of it became more sophisticated, the application also helped officials track levels of contamination in the recyclables it collects and identify households that were improperly sorting. Previously, the city's collection of contamination data was limited to quarterly audits in which workers would dump a sample of collected recycling on a floor, then sort and weigh it to note the abundance of different contaminants. The new approach allowed sanitation workers to take photographs from which machine learning could augment visual inspections to better identify and pinpoint recycling contamination. Then the city's "Feet on the Street" recycling education partnership was used to advise residents on proper sorting. Stephanie Stuckey, the city's former chief resilience officer, credits this data-driven initiative with a 50 percent reduction in contamination.

 

There are other aspects of waste management in which data collection and analysis can provide new insights, such as which trucks or routes are producing the most workplace injuries. And truck-based cameras can collect information on other urban issues, including pavement condition and property vacancy or construction.

Atlanta isn't the only city looking at new technologies to bring more efficiency to waste management operations. Alcoa, Md., and Boise, Idaho, for example, recently procured drones to monitor their landfills. The remote-controlled, camera-equipped aircraft are enabling the cities to better monitor the storage space left in their landfills as well as dangerous events such as gas leaks and heat buildup. Employing drones comes at a fraction of the cost of flying manned surveys and provides far more useful information than on-foot research.

An important lesson for any city attempting a cutting-edge, data-driven waste management program is to get the workforce on board. If new technologies are to be properly used, they require not only training but also buy-in from workers. In the case of Atlanta's waste management innovations, Stuckey noted that "eventually the sanitation staff were accepting, but there was a bit of an adoption curve." To help smooth out that curve, the Office of Sustainability hired a sanitation worker to manage outreach and education efforts, including interactions with the Department of Public Works. "He had literally been on the routes with them just a month before coming to our office," said Stuckey.

The combination of savvier workers empowered with the latest data-driven tools will go a long way toward helping local governments meet the growing challenges of managing waste, from maximizing landfill capacity to more efficient collection to coping with the turmoil of recyclables markets. Cities have new opportunities to break down the waste management process to find areas of improvement, and no innovation is too small when addressing such an important issue.

NOTE: This column's reference to $200 billion in waste disposal costs has been corrected to specify that the figure refers to global costs for solid-waste management.