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The city of Miami has a goal of better managing its waste and reducing collection costs. It also is looking for more transparency into the level of contamination in recyclables collected at city buildings. To assist in meeting these goals and reducing contamination of recyclables, the city partnered with waste metering service provider Compology last year.

The pilot program that Compology, a San Francisco-based provider of camera-based metering services, and the city of Miami launched involved installing waste monitoring technology in dumpsters at several collection sites for recyclables throughout the city to address contamination.

“You can’t reduce what you don’t measure,” says Reza Kashani, vice president of strategy for Compology. “Measurement matters because without it you can’t know what [you’re recycling], how much you’re recycling or if you’re taking the right steps to improve diversion or reduce waste streams.”

Recycling optimized

Ken Russell, a Miami commissioner, says the city decided to form a partnership with Compology to improve the efficiency of its collection routes and reduce the carbon footprint of its fleet. The size of the city’s fleet of collection trucks, which numbers about 222, forced the city to consider its contribution to the rise of CO2 emissions. The city also said at the time of the announcement that it was looking to modernize its recycling equipment and reduce collection costs.

“This pilot program was meant to improve efficiency and reduce waste in the city,” Russell says. “We had never thought of metering waste before; we never understood that this existed or could be done. The concept made sense, so that’s why we did this program,” he says.

The county’s low recycling rate also was concerning to local officials. According to a report from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Miami-Dade County recycled 839,805 tons of the 4.3 million tons of municipal solid waste it collected in 2020, a 19.32 percent collection rate. The majority of the waste, 68.75 percent, was landfilled, while 11.93 percent was incinerated.

One of the main reasons for the low diversion rate is high contamination and low participation in recycling. For multifamily residential buildings, the county’s recycling participation rate is 48 percent. For commercial buildings, the participation is 35 percent, according to the FDEP report.

A study conducted in 2020 showed the recycling contamination rate in Miami-Dade County was 48.8 percent, an increase from 39.7 percent in 2018. Some of the most common items that have contributed to the ongoing contamination issue are cardboard in waste, plastic bags and bulky items like coolers.

Before the project with the city of Miami, Compology primarily worked with corporations, including Apple, McDonald’s and Google. Kashani says Compology partnered with Miami because the company realized that to make a significant impact on waste reduction, it needed to partner with local governments. Miami’s goals of reducing carbon emissions by 60 percent and achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 attracted Compology to the city.

The initiative, which began in October 2021 and ran through December, equipped city waste and recycling dumpsters with rugged smart cameras that take photos to measure how much and what types of material are present. The cameras also can inform the city when waste is being thrown away.

“This is waste metering technology,” Kashani says. “These cameras take images multiple times a day, which then gets analyzed by proprietary AI (artificial intelligence) that scans those images for data. It’s trained on more than 100 million data points, like fullness, fullness at pickup, contents and how often service is needed at a dumpster.”

The city was able to access that information in real-time through a dashboard provided by Compology. The company also provided alerts when a person threw a possible contaminant into the wrong container. This meant the city could quickly alert someone in the building to address the contamination before the dumpster was serviced.

Compology also provides regular contamination reports that recap the amount and types of contamination for each specific location, which helps with ongoing education and enables tracking improvement over time.

The technology was set up in 50 of Miami’s 150 waste and recycling dumpsters on government-owned property in the city. Dumpsters at municipal buildings, police and fire station and parks were fitted with cameras.

The data, which Compology is still processing, showed that some people still don’t know what can and can’t be recycled. Much of the time, people either threw items into the wrong container or threw the wrong type of item into the recycling bin.

“What we saw in the first few weeks of running this program was shocking,” Russell says. “We were overservicing our municipal buildings significantly.”

The data found that more than half the dumpsters were being overserviced, while some of the bins were rarely being used.

Russell says the city is using this data in various ways, such as reorganizing how its fleet services dumpsters throughout the city. The city also plans to increase recycling education efforts to cut down the amount of contamination found in recycling bins, which reduces the contamination fees it has to pay the MRF operator.

Based on the data, the city is reducing the number of routes its sanitation crews run, which is expected to reduce waste collection costs by 30 percent to 40 percent. It also reduced the time it takes for trucks to collect waste and recyclables.

The program didn’t cost the city anything because Compology offered to shoulder the expenses for the pilot. However, for cities interested in using Compology’s services, the company charges a $30 subscription fee for each camera. The average cost savings of 30 percent from waste metering are net of Compology’s subscription costs.

“If the projections of what we’ve seen in the pilot program are true, this is a self-liquidating cost,” Russell says. “The savings created should outweigh the investment of installing the monitoring system.”

Advancing the technology

A Compology camera affixed to a collection container
Photo courtesy of Compology

Russell says the city plans to expand this program, though it’s not clear when the expansion could happen because discussions are ongoing.

Russell says he’d like the city to do three things with this program. This includes expanding the program to all 150 dumpsters at city-owned sites such as firehouses or police stations, making it a requirement for the waste haulers serving the city to use this technology for the dumpsters they service and requiring commercial and multifamily residential buildings to retrofit their dumpsters with the technology from Compology.

Russell says he hopes to have a plan approved by the end of summer. However, before Miami officials can expand the program, he says he must ensure it meets procurement requirements and regulations.

“Worst-case scenario is that there are procurement concerns, some of the waste operators push back on this program or end-users have concerns on how it raises pickup costs,” Russell says. “Any one of those things could push us back because we want to make sure there’s a good buy-in and everyone understands and is aware of what we’re trying to accomplish and how it impacts them.”

Despite the potential procurement concerns, Russell says he’s confident that once those involved see how the program can improve operations, reduce costs and benefit the environment, they will agree to sign on.

“The theory, from what we’ve been studying and the projections, shows that they should be experiencing fewer pickups and should end up producing savings over time as well,” he says. “We want everyone to buy into this because the end goal is an environmental one, both for the carbon footprint for our vehicles and how we handle the waste itself.”

As for companies or other governments considering implementing similar technology, Russell offers some points to consider. He says companies and governments should not be afraid of disruptive technology as it could reduce contamination and optimize efficiency. He also urges waste haulers not to look at the reduction of routes as a negative because it can reduce fuel costs, labor costs and maintenance costs. It also can help with their image, Russell says.

“It shows the community that they’re one of the good guys. If municipalities get this climate-focused mindset, the companies winning contracts will be those considering things like this,” he says. “The ones that will be getting contracts are the ones that are adopting these types of practices early on.”

The author is the digital editor for the Recycling Today Media Group and can be reached at akamczyc@gie.net.