Apr 21, 2024

12 min read

Our Garbage Problem is Huge - Can IoT Clean it Up?

We are sitting on an enormous pile of junk, quite literally. Humans worldwide generate upwards of 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste every year. What’s even more worrisome is that about a third of this waste is mismanaged, causing untold harm to the surrounding environment. As the global population continues to surge past the 8 billion mark, it is only a matter of time before the gargantuan amounts of waste we generate come back to hurt our backsides. 

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There is no question that we have to sit back and take a nice, long hard look at the mess we’re making of the planet. The numbers are truly staggering - it is estimated that the average human being today generates about 0.74 kilograms of solid waste every day! In the developed world, this number is closer to 4.54 kilograms!

For better or for worse, a strong trend of rampant consumption has taken over the wealthier sections of the world in the past century. This trend is not showing any signs of abatement as we move towards a future where there will be a lot more of us. As indices of wealth and development improve, more and more people are emerging out of poverty and adopting an urban lifestyle in the western mould. As our population continues to grow, we will see an enormous increase in the number of people moving to urban areas. Inevitably, this leads to higher rates of consumption and naturally as a consequence, more waste generation. 

Global waste production is poised to grow to over 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050. Let that sink in. If that number doesn’t send a chill down your spine, look again. To put that into context, in 2016, we generated about half of that.

Policy makers have scrambled to find reasonable management solutions and containment tactics to combat this pressing issue. Left unchecked, our waste management woes could lead to some pretty grim outcomes. They represent a public emergency of the highest priority to us as a collective.

Smarter Technologies

In the past decade, the tech world has witnessed tremendous acceleration and innovation. Technologies like AI, ML, energy harvesting and 5G have brought about unprecedented and unimaginable levels of growth. 

The Internet of Things has enabled such a dazzling array of possibilities for us that we simply haven’t been able to keep track of. Causing massive disruption in nearly every sector, IoT technologies have enabled us to drive high levels of operational efficiency and sustainability across all spheres of human activity.

When the idea of connected tech was still in its infancy, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the potential application of IoT technology towards building smarter urban environments. Smart cities were in many ways the perfect IoT application - demonstrating the key points of value that IoT technology brings and contributing directly to an increased quality of life for millions at a time. 

Today, IoT-based urban management has come a long way. Connected technologies powered by wireless sensors, IoT microcontrollers and artificial intelligence are being employed by a number of cities around the world to great effect. Smart urban management includes the use of IoT technologies across a variety of applications such as fleet management, traffic management, pollution sensing etc. 

Similarly, smart waste management systems have emerged as an IoT-enabled innovation to look out for. 

What Is Smart Waste Management?

Smart waste management refers to the use of smart technologies such as IoT, artificial intelligence and machine learning in order to streamline how we manage our waste. Much like any other smart technology, smart waste management is based on the principle of using sensor-enabled intelligence to gain actionable insights into the microprocesses that go into waste collection, recycling and disposal - enabling a higher degree of accountability and sustainability, 

The underlying principle behind smart waste management is quite simple really - using connected technology - i.e wireless sensor networks - we are able to harness the power of big data to bring about order and coherence to the way we manage our waste. The core principle, as with all IoT-based applications, is that the more data we are able to gather, in real time, the more intelligently we are able to orchestrate the various micro-processes that go into building a robust and efficient system. 

Why IoT-Based Smart Waste Management?

Why is it that so many bets are being placed on an IoT-based solution to our enormous waste problem?

Modern human civilisation is a veritable goliath comprising billions upon billions of interconnected processes and sub-systems. These subsystems are often disjointed and poorly connected with one another - this gargantuan system that we’ve created just goes about spinning endlessly, each of its billion components seemingly just doing its own thing. There’s no one “up-there” overseeing how things are done - an enormous pile of toxic battery waste discarded in Venezuela is tangibly and surely causing effects that ripple out into all our lives - but there’s no way for us to have any say in the matter. More centralisation and control is a failed 20th century strategy that had equally destructive ramifications - the soviet union and Nazi Germany stand as stark warnings against the solution of increased centralisation and collectivisation. 

But the problem still stands - what do we do to address this sorry state of affairs - we are literally creating piles of rubbish and throwing it into the oceans. An average 5th grader knows that throwing piles and piles of toxic garbage into the ocean is a desperately stupid thing to do - but the problem is not that of knowledge. We know. But we seem to not be able to find an answer. So, if increased centralised control on a global level is not the solution, then what is?

An alternative is to focus on the grassroots - find ways to optimise the tiniest micro-processes that go into each of our industrial enterprises - find ways to optimise all human activity from the ground up. This is where sensors come in - today, thanks to advances in IoT-based connected technologies - we have an arsenal of incredible tools that enable us to operate on a really granular level, collecting immense amounts of information on the tiniest of scales. 

Our population is growing at breakneck speed - as things stand, we’re on the fastrack to planetary collapse, with our oceans, rainforests and soils in pathetic shape - as we speak, a terrible crisis is underway namely the sixth mass extinction event on this planet - and possibly the first one that has nothing to do with natural disasters of one kind or the other. 

These may sound like disparate issues that are a result of various unrelated events - but they’re not - they’re all symptoms of the same disease - we have grown too big, disconnected, haphazard and avaricious as a species - our modern lives have left us frantic and isolated - cut off from the big picture - to the point where we are literally burning up the very source of our existence. 

The waste problem is not a cosmetic, superficial issue - in a way, it is emblematic of the systemic issues that we’re going to have to rectify if we want any biological life on this planet to survive. The enormous amounts of waste we generate and the hapless ineptitude with which we deal with it is demonstrative of the cataclysmic crisis that lies ahead of us - we can be in denial all we want but that’s going to come at a terrible, terrible cost. 

Smart waste management is, at its core, the best solution that we’ve been able to come up with. The best minds of our modern times have enabled us to make such rapid advances in information technology. In a lot of ways, it represents the best chance we have in this fight against impending planetary doom. 

Why, though?

At the risk of oversimplifying a gigantic issue, this is why we think so - the problem, at its core, is one of disconnectedness - IoT technology, at its core, is about establishing a high degree of interconnectedness. 

Today, thanks to state-of-the-art technologies like batteryless microcontrollers, artificial intelligence, machine learning and ultra-low-power semiconductor chips, we are able to design systems that essentially function like the human nervous system - with all the sub-systems interacting with one one another and with a centralised backend. This is, in essence, how any IoT solution operates - wireless sensors act as nodes that are dispersed across a given ecosystem, collecting huge amounts of highly granular data that is then collected and fed to a backend system. Using modern analytics, we are able to glean highly pertinent insights into the inner workings of the system, which is then fed into the actuating arm to implement changes that make the system progressively more efficient and smart. 

IoT Waste Management Applications

Wireless sensors and IoT microcontrollers are being deployed in a number of innovative ways towards better waste management - 

1. Smart Bins

We’re just no good at sorting trash - this has to be one of the most important reasons for our massive garbage woes. In spite of massive efforts to educate us on the importance of sorting and the sheer magnitude of disastrous consequences of failing to do so, policy makers still face an uphill task in getting enough of us on board with the idea. 

Even when we sort our rubbish, there is a lot of human error in the process which presents a huge pain point at the back end of operations. A polish IoT company 

has attempted to come up with an IoT-based solution to this problem - smart waste bins. 

These bins are powered by IoT-sensors and microcontrollers and they are able to ameliorate the effect of human error on the initial sorting process. They are able to offer a high-tech alternative to the old school method of processing of waste sorting and in doing so, lead to dramatically improved efficiency. Moreover, using smart rubbish bins can slash costs by up to 80% when accounted for at a city-wide level. 

2. Waste level sensors

Typically, municipal bodies organise waste collection along certain predetermined routes. Garbage trucks go along certain pre-planned routes across regular intervals. This can be every day or every week, depending on the case. However, this is incredibly wasteful. Not all bins along the routes are going to be filled all the time. Some bins are going to be empty and some are going to be half filled and so on. 

This is incredibly wasteful because a lot of money is spent on fuel, labour etc. Today, many local governing bodies are implementing IoT to great effect to this end - waste level sensors are being installed in bins and dumpsters. 

These smart bins and dumpsters, equipped with waste level sensors are able to collect data on the fill levels of these bins in real-time, allowing for more efficient and cost-effective planning. 

Collection services can plan trips only when they are necessary, cutting down on unnecessary back trips to and from collection sites, landfills and central garbage processing sites. This technology also has the added benefit of increased public health - when waste levels are monitored in real time, we are able to prevent the unsavoury occurrence of overflowing public containers which create all manner of contamination and pest issues. 

3. Robotics-based Recycling

Recycling plays a huge role in any effective waste management strategy - a lot of perfectly usable material ends up in landfills and oceans simply because of the logistical complexities involved. 

During the Covid pandemic, thanks in part due to the reduced availability of personnel, many recycling centres turned to AI-powered recycling robots which can identify recyclable materials with a high degree of precision. This saves recycling centres a lot of cash and cuts down their dependence on manpower. Moreover, this has the added benefit of making sure we don’t let things end up in landfills unless they absolutely need to. 

4. Smart weight sensors

This one is very similar to the use-case we discussed earlier about waste level sensors. IoT-powered weight sensors are increasingly being used in garbage trucks and public garbage containers to measure the amount of waste being collected in real-time and in doing so, reduce unnecessary trips. 

Instead of measuring fill levels, these solutions employ weight sensors to achieve pretty much the same result.

Advantages of Smart Waste Management

  • 1 When we streamline the process of collecting and disposing rubbish on a city-wide or even larger scale, we end up accruing some pretty serious environmental benefits - when garbage trucks make fewer trips, it makes for a lower carbon footprint thanks to reduced emissions. This also makes for a number of knock-on benefits such as reduced traffic congestion and noise pollution.
  • 2 When we introduce an analytics based solution to optimise the sorting process, we seriously cut down on the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and oceans. Every gram matters.
  • 3 Cleaner cities are a natural by-product. When we optimise the various disparate processes that go into waste collection, processing and disposal, we end up creating healthier and cleaner environments that are conducive to a more wholesome life.
  • 4 A sensor-based approach allows municipal bodies to collect some serious intelligence on the dynamics of waste production, allowing them to craft better long term waste management strategies.

Precariously placed

There are a number of daunting issues that face us as a global unit - perhaps none of these issues is as emblematic of our collective failure of organisation as our ginormous trash problem - this massive problem is literally representative of how we’re making a mess of our planet. 

Make no mistake, this is not a simple problem - and solving it is not a matter of just adopting this technology or that - this is a serious and multi pronged problem that is firstly, the result of a basic lack of collective awareness on our part. 

We have simply not been able to come together strongly enough in order to manage our resources, needs and goals, as a species. If that sounds like a distant dream, or worse like utopian rubbish, it might be wise to remember that we’re still pretty new to all this. In the grand scheme of things, industrial civilization has really just been around for a tiny bit of time - that’s both the scariest and the most hopeful part about all this. 

It is scary that we have been able to grow so big in such a haphazard and destructive manner, so quickly. On the other hand, it should come as a matter of great hope that we’re already at the stage where a significant proportion of people are taking a realistic look at the precarious nature of our ecological situation and coming together to solve it.

At the risk of repeating a worn out cliche, we are at a crossroads point as far as our history is concerned. We are in dire need of radical solutions that dare to rethink the way we do things from the ground up. It is in this context that IoT technologies stand as a beacon of hope for our future.

About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

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