Getting Smart About Waste

Technology has a role in moving toward a goal of zero waste, but so does the "soft" infrastructure of citizen activism and effective policies.
April 26, 2016
By Bob Graves  |  Contributor
Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

With the advent of the Internet of Things, it may seem that technology can make virtually anything "smart." We hear regularly about intelligent transportation systems, electrical grids and vehicles. But what about waste? Can technology make waste smart?

One of the envisioned benefits of smart cities is improved efficiency of systems, whether they be for energy, water or transportation. The use of embedded sensors communicating vast amounts of data, along with the analytics that mine value from that data, allows cities to better understand what's taking place in real or near-real time, resulting in better integration and overall management. The resulting efficiency improvements mean less waste of taxpayer-funded resources.

But what about solid waste -- trash and garbage? The words themselves, suggesting things considered to have no value, imply a low level of efficiency. So smart communities are redefining the fundamental purpose of their systems by viewing garbage itself as a resource and setting zero waste as the goal.

No matter how smart a city is, however, getting to zero waste isn't going to be easy. It will take the coordination of many factors, including not only technology but also citizen engagement and political will.

There's no doubt that the Internet of Things will play an important role. For example, sensors in dumpsters and other waste receptacles can signal when they're full and ready for pickup, yielding huge reductions in collection costs. Similar efficiency improvements will be implemented throughout the resource recovery system, resulting in better coordination of material transport to and through sorting equipment, recycling plants and composting facilities.

 

But "soft" infrastructure elements will also have a role - the policies, regulations and strategies that guide the establishment and operation of modern recovery systems. And a key part of that soft infrastructure is a vital success factor that can all too easily be overlooked. In a recent paper focusing on Los Angeles, Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, identified citizen activism as the critical difference between communities with high versus low recycling rates.

It's true that, for the nation as a whole, recycling rates have stagnated for more than a decade. But given the high recycling rates that leading cities continue to maintain, claims that the cause of the overall lack of progress is a decrease in the value of recycled materials are misleading. "It is not economics that keeps recycling stagnant in parts of the country," Selman writes. "Rather it is a stagnation of citizen activism. Where citizens remain active, recycling levels continue to rise to unprecedented levels."

Los Angeles is a city that illustrates what an engaged citizenry can accomplish. In the early 1960s, the city's recycling rate actually dropped, to virtually zero. Mayor Sam Yorty had ended a program that required residents to separate metal from their trash, saying it was too burdensome. But by the mid-1980s, due to population growth and the sheer volume of waste, the city's landfill was getting overwhelmed. Incineration was put forward as a solution. The proposal was to build five 1,000-ton-per-day incinerators to be located in low-income and minority areas of the city. That idea was fought vigorously by a diverse coalition of activists, and it was withdrawn in 1986.

In successive years, an array of state and local laws, policies and actions resulted is a new waste-management hierarchy that gave preference (in order) to reducing waste generation, reuse, recycling and environmentally sound landfilling. As a result, Los Angeles raised its waste-diversion rate upward, going to 20.6 percent in 1990, 65.2 percent in 2000 and 76.4 percent in 2010. The current goal is a 90 percent diversion rate by 2025.

"In 30 years, Los Angeles moved from a burn-and-bury strategy to a zero waste strategy while using no new technology, no magic bullets, and no unusual funding sources," Seldman explains. "Citizen groups organized across racial and class divides and with the support of businesses and eventually by government agencies devised and implemented creative new programs to make Los Angeles a leader in recycling among major U.S. cities."

Technology is, to be sure, a valuable tool to help communities get smarter about waste. But underpinning its use will always be the soft infrastructure of citizen engagement accompanied by effective strategies and policies on the part of government.