“Smart” is the new buzzword in the waste and recycling industry today as it is applied to cities and trucks, among other things, that utilize technology to collect data and manage waste operations. From automation, to route optimization, anaerobic digestion, compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks and robotics, the industry has taken great strides toward the future of collecting, storing and managing waste through technology.
Waste360 recently sat down with Anne Germain, director of waste and recycling technology for the National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA) based in Arlington, Va., to discuss new technology, the future of it within the industry and the idea of “smart” waste.
Waste360: In 2015, we discussed the most popular new technologies in the waste industry. At that time you said it was anaerobic digestion. Is that still the case and why or why not?
Anne Germain: Anaerobic digestion (AD) has not yet peaked. Its momentum is slow primarily due to economics and permitting. Even in areas with higher tip fees, AD facility revenues will not sufficiently lower the costs to provide a more attractive alternative to other waste management practices. Therefore, AD will be most successful in areas that require alternative management practices. However, permitting can still be time-consuming for these facilities.
Waste360: Are new technologies focused on smart waste practical? Are they effective?
Anne Germain: The technologies are generally not as cost-effective a waste management strategy as landfilling. However, it is important for communities to determine what to prioritize. For example, if food waste diversion is mandated, then tip fees may be sufficient to make AD practical.
Waste360: How can big data make a real impact on the bottom line?
Anne Germain: Data can be useful in establishing waste and recycling priorities for the future. The evolving ton has shown that the composition of waste changes over time and understanding these trends can determine where to invest capital. It also can be used to ensure the safety of workers and improve efficiencies.
More data does not necessarily lead to greater productivity and efficiency. It all depends on how it is utilized. Therefore, this data also will require more sophisticated analysis and a strategic approach to what will be done with the collected information. It also should be validated.
Waste360: How does technology affect the way the waste and recycling industry does business?
Anne Germain: Most waste and recycling facilities require large capital investments that need to be recouped over a long time. Rarely are they scalable. Given that, change tends to be slower. However, some anaerobic digestion facilities might provide the flexibility that will allow them to grow organically.
Waste360: What is the future of safety technology in the waste industry?
Anne Germain: The industry focus on safety relies on both low-tech safety talks and training to higher tech devices such as cameras, lighting packages and collision avoidance systems. Automation in the trucks and at facilities improve safety. However, increasingly, distracted driving is a problem. Therefore, monitoring drivers by focusing on recording incidents of sudden braking and similar behaviors can serve to reinforce good driving hygiene.
Waste360: Where will garbage trucks be in five years? What impact will technology have on them?
Anne Germain: Already, the share of compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks make up a not insignificant quantity of trucks on the road. But, as fleets continue to replace older vehicles, the proportion of CNG vehicles will continue to climb. This is largely due to the lower cost of CNG as compared to diesel. CNG trucks burn cleaner and quieter. Electric hybrid garbage trucks will be next.
Automation will continue to expand its proportion of the market as it provides for increased safety and efficiency in collection. I think it might be a little optimistic to think we will have driverless trucks in five years within the waste industry—but who knows?
Waste360: Will robotics play a role in the waste industry? If so, how?
Anne Germain: Robotics are already in use at material recovery facilities (MRFs). However, these are not robots that we typically think of that are anthropomorphized with heads and arms and legs. Instead, they are machines designed to execute complex tasks automatically with speed and precision. These facilities rely on robotics to safely and quickly sort through the incoming materials.