The future of the waste industry is moving toward computerization and data mining. Many speakers during WasteExpo 2017 discussed how big data, telematics and other technologies are allowing smarter operation in the industry. They also discussed increased interest in organics diversion and creating renewable energy from waste.
More than 12,000 waste industry professionals roamed the halls of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans during WasteExpo 2017. The event, May 8 to 11, allowed attendees to see new products and technologies on display from more than 620 exhibitors and to attend more than 100 educational sessions on a wide range of topics, including recycling, technology, food waste and renewable energy.
BEYOND DATA COLLECTION
Recording data is one thing, but deriving meaningful conclusions from them to provide direction is quite another. During a session titled Smart Cities with a Solid (Waste) Plan, speakers shared how their communities are doing just that.
Susan Fife-Ferris, director of solid waste planning and program management at Seattle Public Utilities, shared what the city of 700,000 people is doing with its data. She said data doesn’t just come from one source; it is collected by contractors, haulers, processors and an assortment of other entities. The city conducts research and studies and uses focus groups and stakeholders in its data gathering.
Within Seattle, private recyclers, composters and transfer stations operate. The city has two transfer stations operated by Seattle Public Utilities, including a new one.
One of the struggles Fife-Ferris said Seattle faces is that many people live in the suburbs and come into Seattle for work and vice versa. This creates difficulty in terms of consistency in recycling across the region, she said.
The city has 155,000 residential carts, 4,000 residential dumpsters and 6,000 commercial dumpsters. Recyclables and organics are banned from the dumpsters. Garbage collected from the city is long hauled by rail to Arlington, Oregon, about 320 miles away.
“We only pay for what we ship,” Fife-Ferris said. “The less we ship the less we have to pay, so [we have a] huge economic benefit by not having to ship it.”
She defined a “smart city” as one where you “gather data and you use that data to make decisions and drive your policies.”
Seattle residents can pay up to $110 per month for weekly garbage collection using a 96-gallon cart (a 12-gallon can costs only $21 per month), $12 per month for weekly organics collection and every-other-week recycling collection is free. Fife- Ferris explained, “If you put stuff in your garbage, you are going to pay a lot more.”
This rationalization seems to work on residents; only 2 percent have a 96-gallon container for their trash. Most have smaller containers.
Enforcement of correct recycling is another component of the program. Residents who don’t recycle correctly are given an “Oops!” tag on their bins to help correct their behavior.
“Education and outreach are of huge importance,” Fife- Ferris emphasized. She added that disposal bans also help to drive recycling programs.
“There is a difference between data collection and performance metrics,” she said. “You can learn a lot by mining that data for information.”
Jim McKay, general manager, solid waste management services, city of Toronto, said Toronto has similar challenges.
The city has a population of 3 million that is split roughly evenly between multi- and single-family homes. Commercial and industrial recycling are managed through the private sector.
Recycling diversion is measured by weight, but that does not give an accurate picture, McKay said. “We are looking at changing how we measure diversion,” he said. “We won’t measure it by weight anymore. We are handling more material that weighs less. We are looking at a different set of metrics.”
Toronto has a three-cart program with 1.3 million carts in use. It has transfer stations and drop-off locations, which McKay said don’t make sense anymore because fewer people are driving and more are relying on public transportation.
Toronto is paying to landfill materials so it wants to put as little in the landfill as possible. It is also managing and monitoring about 160 closed landfills. “We are paying $12 million a year just to maintain those sites,” said McKay.
Canada operates a little bit differently than the U.S. because it has extended producer responsibility (EPR), where manufacturers and distributors are responsible for funding a portion of recycling costs for the Blue Box program for packaging. It provides an extra revenue stream to the city.
Toronto also has curbside green bin and biweekly garbage collection. “When you switch to biweekly pickups, it is that much more incentive to divert more material,” he said.
The list of organics the city accepts is extensive because of the flexibility its two anaerobic digestion systems offer.
The biggest change coming down the pike for Canada is in EPR policy. Over the next several years, companies will go from paying 50 percent of the cost of the Blue Box program to paying 100 percent of the cost. Consumer goods companies have agreed to this plan as long as they can take control of the recycling system. It will be run by an organization made up of companies like Proctor & Gamble and Coca-Cola.
McKay said Toronto has an aspirational goal of zero waste. “We are trying to shift away from zero-waste and more toward a circular economy concept,” he said.
The city also is moving to mobile depots for recycling, bringing services to high-rise complexes, for example. Textile recycling is another area the city is looking at as textiles are a large part of the waste stream.
One of the challenges for Toronto is its urban density. It is looking at a “more condensed solution than all these bins,” said McKay.
It also wants to reap the benefits of the two digesters, which have been flaring gas rather than using it for energy in what McKay called an “unbelievable waste of a resource.”
When it comes to recycling right and efficiently and to increasing diversion, many boxes must be checked off to ensure a smooth process overall.
In terms of increasing residential curbside recycling, the most cost-efficient and effective program has proven to be pay as you throw (PAYT), said Lisa Skumatz, an economist at Skumatz Economic Research Associates Inc. (SERA), Superior, Colorado.
In the session Residential Collection Best Practices, Skumatz said it is “incumbent on us to spend money wisely.” Therefore, she concluded through extensive research that the most valuable program to implement is PAYT for garbage.
“Pay as you throw is the single most efficient and cost-effective option you can put in residential [programs],” Skumatz said. “The trash side will continue to improve, with collection and recycling needs to improve with it.”
Skumatz cited a study where PAYT programs were shown to have decreased residential disposal by 17 percent. With more than 9,000 PAYT programs operating across the U.S., she said this accessibility “encourages recycling and organics recycling.”
Factors such as curbside cart size and frequency of collection also play roles in recycling rates. Skumatz said recyclers should consider every-other-week collection. Integrated collection—where the same hauler collects trash and recycling loads—also saves money, she said.
Beyond switching the frequency of collection, education and awareness are crucial to getting people to recycle correctly. While education and outreach efforts are “not cheap,” Skumatz recognized, they are worth it.
However, modern efforts are not as effective as they could be. “There are ways to make the education you offer more effective,” Skumatz said.
She pointed to the feeling of empowerment and the need people have for self-efficacy. People like to feel as if what they are doing makes a difference, and reminding them of the benefits of recycling could help to drive that message home.
Door-to-door marketing, rather than social media marketing, is more convincing, she said.
It also is important to consider incentives and bans, Skumatz said. She suggested creating different tip fees based on varying material streams.
Michael Casella, division manager at Rutland, Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems Inc., said companies should also focus on fleet costs rather than just on disposal costs. “People focus just on disposal costs, but really they need to focus on truck costs,” Casella said.
He also spoke to attendees of the Residential Collection Best Practices session.
Along with costs associated with collection trucks, Casella said contract length dictates economics. Properly managing the length of contracts helps to ensure new trucks are covered as well as any changes to services, such as the addition of organics collection. Casella suggested bundling residential organics collection into the municipal contract.
Casella Waste Systems recovered 1.2 million tons of waste in 2016, recycling 800,000 tons. The company, an integrated solid waste services firm, serves Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont.
DRILLING DOWN DATA
A key term heard throughout Waste- Expo was “big data.”
Big data, according to several speakers throughout the conference, can be used to increase efficiencies in different industry sectors.
In the session Big Data & Smart Waste, speakers discussed how data collection is affecting customer service and outreach as well as route optimization. They also detailed how to pin down the most relevant data sets.
According to Don Ross, director of operations at Kessler Consulting Inc., Tampa, Florida, big data often can range from a terabyte to many petabytes in size, which may be more than the waste industry needs or even can handle.
Because the public sector, private sector and haulers communicate with similar or the same customers throughout their service areas, the data sets needed to increase efficiency likely do not need to be that large, he said. Rather than gathering every piece of data from a customer, Ross said, “you need to figure out what is essential and valuable to your operations.”
Data can be used in a variety of ways and are captured by different technologies, such as cameras, radio frequency identification tools (RFID) and in-cab devices, made for different purposes.
Scott Lukach, vice president of environmental services at Rehrig Pacific Co., Los Angeles, said gathering data and using the information in certain applications, such as those mentioned previously, is only the beginning for the waste industry. In general, data are changing the way the world lives—from how objects are purchased to how people communicate, he said.
Cloud computing is pushing the “clunky” technology of old off to the wayside. It is capable to holding more information while taking up less room. Older technology, such as scanners, didn’t communicate well with other devices and were unreliable. Now, with RFID tagging on containers, machine-to-machine communication allows for a more reliable set of data, he said.
This, Lukach said, allows waste companies to create marketing campaigns with more focus and to develop closer relationships with their customers through mobile apps.
“Behaviors are changing,” Lukach said. “And we need to change with them as an industry.”