Digitalisation of urban waste management

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Municipal waste can be turned into a resource. Municipalities all around Europe apply Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) schemes geared to incentivise citizens to better sort their waste. Better sorting improves the quality of recyclable fractions and reduces residual waste. 

On average, 26% of total domestic waste is landfilled, 27% is incinerated and only 47% is composted or recycled. Currently, 34% of packaging waste – which is the 63% of the total plastic waste in Europe- is recycled. Food waste accounts to 47 million tons in Europe out of which 80% of food waste could be avoided. 

This is the current average European baseline for the municipal waste. Can it be further improved? The Horizon 2020 projects Waste4Think and PlastiCircle are providing some interesting solutions. 

Digital technologies

Both projects use RFID technologies for monitoring waste fractions at household level. Waste4Think does it for residual waste. Based on the data collected, Waste4Think produces analytics concerning waste production per household with 1-5 or more than five registered individuals. A PAYT accounting system generates the city tax that is proportional to the waste generated per household. Citizen’s sorting performance is monitored by sampling the bags and feedback is provided via a citizen’s app. This is called ‘Know As You Throw’ (KAYT). Serious games are employed to empower citizens in order to familiarise them with difficult sorting scenarios and improve their behaviour. 

PlastiCircle has a similar approach for monitoring domestic plastic packaging waste. In this case, however, citizens’ sorting is well guided by a characterisation protocol, and they get rewarded with an “eco-points” style rewarding system if they sort accordingly. 

Regarding transportation, both PlastiCircle and Waste4Think use telematics and Internet of Things (IoT) to optimise collection service based on the filling level or weight of containers, GPS and tags, as well as traffic and driving behaviour. Thus, the CO2 footprint (which is also calculated) and resources used for collection (person hours/ petrol/ amortisation of vehicles) are minimised.

At the central sorting phase, PlastiCircle uses Near Infrared (NIR) imaging and innovative conveyors to better position/stabilise 2D films and thus improve sorting throughput in terms of higher quantity and improved quality. Waste4Think uses sensors to measure the valorisation of green and bio-waste (from food waste and nappies) into bio-gas and compost.  

Value creation

The added value derived from the scaling up of the aforementioned technologies can be significant. PAYT can reduce incineration/ landfilling by reducing residual waste. KAYT, serious gaming and NIR imaging can improve waste prevention and sorting, the quantity/ quality of recyclables and thus their competitiveness as feedstock against virgin material. In the case of Waste4Think, biogas produced could be sold back to the national grid or used to fuel the collection vehicles (as it is the case at present). Overall, data collection and reporting on municipal waste management could become more transparent and provide analytics about cost drivers and revenues potential. Policy making can be based on detailed analytics.

Opportunities for new business models

New value that is created needs to be shared fairly among stakeholders. This creates an opportunity for new business models.  

A good example is the “eco-points” reward programme for good sorting of recyclables. Contrary to PAYT that is geared to penalise citizens’ poor behaviour, the KAYT model is designed to return to them some of the value created by the sorted plastics stream.  Its advantage is that it is on a voluntary basis – thus it can be gradually deployed as it does not require locking the collection containers.

Along the same lines, effort-based contracts could be feasible for waste managers vs the annual lamp sum fee as is the case now. In this scenario, waste managers will be reimbursed based on the actual effort for collecting/sorting the waste. Revenues from selling the recovered plastic to the recyclers or selling bio-gas back to the grid will be quantified in a transparent manner and taken into account in the calculation of the reimbursement fee.

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