Uncertainty and a risk-averse mentality are holding councils back from adopting new technologies and solutions that could revolutionise the way we manage our trash. So, will big data help pinpoint exact savings and operational efficiencies? Patricia Moore reports.
With an estimated three million tonnes of waste ending up in New Zealand’s municipal landfills every year, Kiwis are not exactly shining stars when it comes to managing trash. We’re not alone. Regardless of the worldwide necessity to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, we’re living in a throw-away society, constantly exhorted to buy something bigger, brighter and shinier.
Consumerism rules and the cracks are starting to show. Wellington’s southern landfill, for example, has just eight years’ capacity remaining. Ratepayers could have to stump up $12 million to extend the facility or come up with smarter, more innovative solutions.
On a global scale countless technologies and solutions exist within the solid waste sector, explains Paul Evans, WasteMINZ chief executive. “However, it’s fair to say that in New Zealand we have shied away from many, often due to the associated uncertainty and risk.
“This is particularly evident in the local government sector, where ever-present public scrutiny can often cause councils to adopt a risk-averse, if-it-aint-broke-don’t-fix-it mentality. With so many variables at play, who can blame them for taking a prudent approach?”
Paul believes the future of innovation in the solid waste sector will be less about new ways to treat or recycle waste, and more about data – timely, accurate and complex data, driven by networks of interconnected technology with embedded sensors.
“The Internet of Things and the big data it creates will allow local government to respond far more rapidly to the needs of ratepayers, as well as driving operational efficiencies and ultimately, cost saving.”
Technology is allowing the sector to evolve in ways barely considered a decade ago, says Ben Calvert, product manager at Manco Environmental.
“Who would have thought a bin in a public park would be solar-powered, have a compaction unit and the ability to communicate with the refuse collector or council on its current volume status? Who would have considered the idea of electric rubbish trucks?”
Last year BigBelly bins around the world captured more than 424 million litres of waste and recycling, he says.
“The data collected included the volume of waste for each bin, the time it took to empty the bin, and reports on when bins reached capacity – all while reducing carbon emissions for councils and contractors. The savings are in the millions of dollars and the environmental benefits have exceeded traditional methods of collecting waste.”
Anthony Kirk, principal hydrogeologist with GHD, says traditional methods have long been associated with adverse environmental effects and nuisance to the public.
“The evolution of management practices to mitigate or minimise these comes at a cost. Innovation in the area of assessment, compliance and management of waste is addressing these rising costs.”
It’s happening across the board. Ben Calvert cites developments from hybrid low entry vehicles (LEVs), designed for collecting rubbish in urban areas, which meet the highest ergonomic standards and provide an economic, one person operation, to innovations minimising the amount of waste going to landfills.
“These include aerobic food digesters in malls, glass-crushing technologies that allow the product to be recycled in concrete, and composting of food, paper and cardboard.”
DRONES, MORE DRONES
The ubiquitous drone is also hovering. Ben Hutchinson, senior environmental scientist at GHD, says when it comes to using drones as a tool for assessment, the technology is improving at such a rate that it’s becoming more economically feasible to use customised drones for specific monitoring and assessment tasks.
One current use is detecting and monitoring methane gas leaks in closed landfills.
“The drone sensors are able to deduce the methane leak rate then focus in on the leak location.”
Innovation isn’t all focused on technology. Alice Grace, senior consultant with Morrison Low, notes increased collaboration between the community and medium-to-large waste companies.
“These innovative arrangements, often introduced by councils in the first instance, bring together the energy and enthusiasm of the community sector with the management and experience of the waste industry, giving customers the benefit of both worlds.”
She envisages more local bodies seeking such partnerships, “particularly as they look to identify options to address district-specific waste issues for their new waste management and minimisation plans”.
Anthony says local authorities carrying out waste management activities can expect to undertake a higher level of monitoring and demonstration of appropriate management.
“Collection and interpretation of compliance information will require greater understanding of both waste management and environmental processes,” he says.
“Whether local authorities invest in ongoing staff training to meet these demands, or outsource work to external parties, the increased compliance burden is expected to result in increased costs.”
And, as the scope of data gathering widens and the amount of data gathered increases there will be challenges in interpreting it in both a quantitative and qualitative sense, says Paul.
“Once again I believe technology will come into play with algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning assisting in the decision-making process.”
Some councils are already using this technology on a small scale, says Paul, but innovations, such as remote sensors that indicate when a bin is full, thereby optimising collection routes and frequencies, have been relatively expensive.
“The payback, in the short term, has been a challenge. However, costs are rapidly decreasing while quality and reliability is increasing so we are close to a tipping point where it makes absolute sense for councils to embrace digitisation of waste.
“It’s innovations like this that will allow a shift in business models away from the old low-risk, low-reward options, toward more sustainable long-term solutions.”
And it’s sustainability as a whole that’s driving innovation in the industry, says Ben Calvert.
“This means a good balance between environmental, economic and social benefits, not just a singular focus on any one sector. It’s therefore important to be realistic when looking at what the industry is trying to achieve from proven data.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the April 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.