As NewtonX recently wrote, plastic is a massive problem — as in, of the 600B tons of plastics that humans produce every year, only 9% are recycled, while the rest is burned or dumped. We wrote about the potential for machine learning applied to materials discovery as a solution for plastics alternatives, but now we’re looking at immediate solutions for recycling and reusing. Trash tech has become increasingly popular, particularly in the wake of China’s recent order to end its acceptance of foreign garbage. This has created worldwide panic over how to deal with our excess materials.
NewtonX conducted a survey with 150 executives at so-called “trash tech” companies — companies that are using technology to improve garbage sorting, roll out smart dumpsters, and reuse clean materials. The results of this survey informed the data and insights in this article.
Smart Dumpsters and Trash-Sorting Robots: The Future of Trash Tech
There a few dimensions to smart garbage disposal:
- Route planning based on collection needs
- Smart sorting and contamination alerts
These three forms of smart trash tech are all dependent on sensors that can monitor weight and identify materials differences based on weight. For instance, the solar-powered trash compactor, CleanCUBE, uses ultrasonic sensors to detect how full a bin is, which reduces collection frequency by 80%, which improves efficiency by up to 50%. While this doesn’t directly impact the amount of plastics being used vs. recycled, it does decrease fuel consumption in trash collection — an environmental factor that should not be underestimated.
The company that makes the CleanCUBE — Ecube Labs — also offers a cloud platform that monitors waste container fill levels, and does route optimization and forecasting based on fill levels.
On the consumer-facing side, there are numerous companies that also use sensors and weight calculations to reduce contamination of recyclables and compostables (a single contaminant can turn an entire truck of recyclables into trash!). For instance, EvoEco has a smart garbage can called the EvoBin, which uses a smart screen and scales to tell warn users when they may have placed an item in the wrong bin. A competitor called Compology similarly notifies both waste collectors and the business tossing the waste when they throw a contaminant into a recycling bin, based on sensors and scales. If a waste collector is notified that a bin has been contaminated they won’t even pick it up. Compology’s customers include Peninsula Sanitary Service, which does all of the waste collection for Stanford University, and trash giant Waste Management.
Indeed, Waste Management and its competitors have begun to incorporate trash technology into their processes to clean up waste streams and make processes more efficient. Waste Management has three different kinds of robots that pull contaminants out of recycling, which allows the company to produce more recycling streams with better results. This, combined with their Compology smart dumpsters has helped the company become more efficient and eco friendly.
Can Smart Dumpsters Really Make That Big of an Impact?
In reality, trash tech can only go so far: the bigger environmental impact will have to come from reduction, regulation, and incentives for reusable materials. Already, nearly 300 municipalities across the US are charging for or banning plastic bags, while others are also banning styrofoam and plastic straws. While smart waste solutions can help improve efficiency and maximize usable recycling streams, ultimately the biggest impact will have to come from consumption.