Illustration: Sergey Nivens

With waste materials piling up in the U.S. and other global markets, the China recycling ban enacted on Jan. 1 is already making an impact. A couple of months have gone by and China has showed no sign of reversing their policy, even though the waste industry around the world has stated their frustrations with the ban. Some U.S. House members have even called on the Chinese government to repeal it.

But, why continue to spend time and energy fighting this ban when we could instead focus on handling it here at home and making the necessary changes to adapt to our new recycling reality? Investing in technology across all levels of the waste life cycle can help the U.S. more efficiently manage our waste and even reduce our waste generation before it lands in the dumpster, therefore decreasing contaminated recyclables.

“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a mantra that has been around for a while, yet the focus is typically associated with the recycling component more so than on reducing and reusing waste. While recycling makes companies and consumers feel good, the thought of reducing waste often evokes something akin to a fear response from the public, as people feel they have a right to consume at their discretion. However, the China recycling ban has made one thing clear: This approach is no longer reasonable or sustainable. Focusing on waste reduction may alleviate some of the issues we are currently seeing, and luckily, this is something that can be more easily achieved with the use of technology.

The future of the internet of things in waste

Today, there is a push to introduce new technology-enabled solutions into the waste industry as the internet of things (IoT) and connected devices allow visibility into processes we’ve never had access to before. New IoT-driven processes and technological advances will provide even more information to help better manage waste throughout the supply chain through the use of data to identify where reduction can occur and where action needs to be taken to help make waste and recycling programs more effective.

This type of visibility is critical in the wake of the China ban, making it easier to pinpoint exactly where the majority of waste is coming from, at what stage it is being generated most, and where it is getting contaminated. IoT devices allow waste services providers to identify changes in volume down to the specific site or facility level. By continuously monitoring and analyzing waste in all phases of its life cycle—from the dumpster to the truck to the waste facility—waste services can offer actionable insights to their clients, enabling them to make data-driven decisions to reduce the amount of waste at the source.

Technology in dumpsters

The ability to control what will ultimately be put in a landfill or recycling center starts at the dumpster. Waste services providers can leverage the IoT capabilities of container sensors to consistently monitor waste volumes coming out of a site. This data allows them to offer their customers clarity and visibility around how much waste they’re producing.

This means that waste generators now can know how full a dumpster is, what its contents are, how quickly it became full, how often it needs to be collected and, most importantly, insights on what the facility can do to reduce its waste.

By analyzing the data from container sensors, identifying patterns of activity and auditing waste streams, these connected devices allow waste services providers to uncover what causes changes in volume and to understand where in the supply chain the materials come from. With this information, facilities can make changes to ultimately help with the goal of reducing waste.

Further, waste service providers using dumpsters that are integrated with IoT sensors can help to discover if a facility is accurately following recycling regulations. If a site is placing recyclables in its dumpster or vice versa, waste services providers can lay out a simplified and easy-to-follow recycling program specific to the site’s county and city regulations to increase recycling accuracy and efficiency.

This will decrease contaminated recycling batches and increase the volume of clean, sorted recyclables, which is an overall win-win.

Technology in vehicles

After the waste and recycling materials get placed in the dumpster, technology in the hauler truck can continue the process of ensuring loads are not contaminated.

Some waste collection trucks are using cameras to take pictures of contaminated loads so that the haulers can send notices and fines to end customers not adhering to recycling standards. This puts even more accountability on the waste generators.

[Monitoring waste] means that waste generators now can know how full a dumpster is, what its contents are, how quickly it became full, how often it needs to be collected and, most importantly, insights on what the facility can do to reduce its waste.

Additionally, by being able to check if a load is contaminated before it reaches the recycling center, haulers will gain the added efficiency of knowing to place those collections in the appropriate location at a sorting facility instead of with the other uncontaminated recyclables.

Technology in waste facilities

This same type of technology can be instituted at recycling and waste facilities to help better control contamination.

At these facilities, the use of robotic sorting technology is advancing. While still a major investment, robotic technology has been proven to sort materials faster and more accurately than humans can. Robotic sorters use deep learning technology to see the material, artificial intelligence to identify the item and a robotic arm to pick up specific pieces of waste. With recyclables, it’s critical to separate paper from plastic from aluminum, and these robotic workers can speed up and streamline this process while also ensuring accuracy is maintained.

Implementing and investing in technology at all levels and phases of the trash life cycle will help this objective and bring added clarity into the composition of waste that generators are producing.

Focus on the positive impact

China’s ban may have disrupted the status quo of the global waste industry, but this ban has just as much to do with what is going on overseas as it does in our communities in the U.S. These new regulations have placed the responsibility of recycling back into the industry’s hands.

While few industry stakeholders would likely classify the ban as a good thing, it has presented an opportunity to rethink and refocus on the systems and methods that are currently used in our industry. The question now becomes, “Can we use it as a reason to implement positive, waste-reducing methods that will have a lasting impact?”

It’s up to us in the waste industry to inform, educate and enforce accurate recycling and reduction waste provisions that can answer this question in the affirmative.

Christy Hurlburt is vice president of marketing for Enevo, a waste services provider within the retail, restaurant and multifamily industries with U.S. headquarters in Boston.