Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe: Smart waste management

A product’s life cycle can be roughly presented as production followed by consumption, and then only waste remains. When we think of digitisation or smart optimisation, we first think about optimising production and perhaps also consumption.

However, it makes sense to ask about the possible digitalisation of waste collection and management as well, especially since waste is present, not only during the production of a product but later when the product itself becomes waste.

With 2.1 billion tonnes of municipal waste generated worldwide each year, we must explore new waste management options, and the advantage offered by digitalisation and smart technologies is crucial.

However, global population growth and rapid urbanisation have led to a massive increase in waste generation, so the traditional methods of waste collection have become inefficient, gradually leading to the inefficiency of conventional methods of waste collection and management.

What opportunities arise in the digitalisation of waste management? Photo: Bigrentz.

What opportunities arise in the digitalisation of waste management? Photo: Bigrentz.

In wide use, the current waste collection system includes workers travelling by truck from container to container and emptying them in a predetermined order.

Understandably, workers cannot know which containers are half empty and so full that they do not close anymore. On the same day or in the same shift, all containers are being emptied: those that could still wait and those that should be emptied more often.

In addition to such a system not being efficient, it also leads to excessive use of fuel and other valuable resources. At this point, we can see that it will be difficult for a country or a city to call itself sustainable if it does not introduce at least some solutions of smart waste management.

Various smart solutions to waste management

Smart waste management focuses on solving the previously mentioned solid waste management problems using sensors, intelligent monitoring systems, and mobile applications.

Sensors are one of the most widespread solutions that enable a more efficient waste collection process. With the help of sensors, we can measure the fill level of the containers and, in this way, access real-time data in real-time, with the help of which waste management services always know when to empty containers.

Even with such simple devices as sensors, workers can do their work more efficiently and in less time. They can optimise the route they take daily and adjust the schedule. In addition, the waste management companies can receive an immediate warning in the event of a fire in the containers or displacement of the container, as the sensors can also include a GPS feature.

Based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the Voka Snaga company has installed Bigbelly smart containers at three frequently visited locations in Ljubljana. “With the help of sensors, Voka Snaga will monitor the fullness of the container and adjust the efficient emptying of it accordingly. The container for mixed waste has also a built-in press, which increases the volume for waste disposal from 180 to 800 litres, and the entire system is powered by solar energy” they wrote on their website.

Smart containers in Ljubljana. Photo: Voka Snaga.
Smart containers in Ljubljana. Photo: Voka Snaga.

The company added that such containers could reduce collections by 80 per cent on average compared to “traditional” containers. Bigbelly containers are used in more than 1,500 cities in 54 countries. They are used in Stockholm, Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, Hamburg, and Zagreb, among others.

The Polish company Bin-e has taken it a step further with smart waste bins that have also tackled the problem of recycling. People sometimes don’t bother to find the proper rubbish bin and dispose of the waste where it really belongs, or maybe sometimes they are not even sure, what belongs to which bin, so Bin-e left this responsibility to artificial intelligence.

Smart containers with artificial intelligence. Photo: Bin-e.
Smart containers with artificial intelligence. Photo: Bin-e.

When a can, bottle, or chocolate wrapper is placed in a bin (there is only one opening), the device will identify it and sort it into the correct partition. After sorting, the machine compresses the waste, and the responsible person can constantly monitor the fill via a mobile application.

But what if garbage trucks were removed entirely from the roads? Some cities are experimenting with installing so-called automated vacuum waste collection containers or pneumatic containers connected to the landfill or waste collection centre by a series of underground pneumatic tubes.

Rubbish dumped in such containers travels through tubes to a waste collection facility, where it can then be sorted or recycled. Such a system eliminates the need for traditional waste collection, reduces energy costs and increases overall efficiency.

System of containers with underground tubes. Photo: MariMatic.
System of containers with underground tubes. Photo: MariMatic.

Envac, a Swedish company that dominates the market for vacuum waste collection systems, says their infrastructure beautifies city streets, limits carbon emissions and traffic congestion caused by garbage trucks, and keeps rats away. With the help of such a system, they can even monitor how much waste is generated by individual households and businesses, which allows local authorities to tax them appropriately.

Vacuum waste collection systems are now the default infrastructure in 44 cities, from Seoul to Barcelona. This alternative approach to waste collection could lead cities to a cleaner and greener future. Still, the question remains whether budgetary constraints and logistical dilemmas will prevent this technology from spreading beyond the prosperous cities of Europe and Asia.

What about more demanding and potentially hazardous waste? Improperly discarded electronic waste can be harmful to both humans and the environment. Fortunately, you can get rid of your old electronic devices in an environmentally friendly way at many companies or organisations. In some places, you will even get a cash discount in return.

EcoATM, a smart recycling company, has taken the idea of reducing electronic waste a step further by developing a line of smart kiosks that allow you to exchange your device for cash on the spot in most cases.

Smart container for electronic devices EcoATM. Photo: CNBC.
Smart container for electronic devices EcoATM. Photo: CNBC.

Let’s move on from collection to actual waste treatment. Are any smart optimisations possible in this area as well? Just as Bin-e containers sort garbage with the help of artificial intelligence, so can robots in recycling centres.

These robots are designed to accurately identify and classify recyclable materials, increasing efficiency and reducing the need for the human factor. This saves the recycling centre money over time and helps properly sort out materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill.

After all, digitisation can also improve waste management indirectly through applications that make it easier for individuals to recycle. RecycleNation and iRecycle are two such applications that provide users with information on recycling, collection centre processes and locations, and their comprehensive lists of materials help determine which items can be recycled.

As we can see, with the help of digital technologies, we can deeply intervene in handling, collecting, and processing everyday waste. As with most other things, technology is available in this area as well; we just need to add the will and enthusiasm on our part.

Author: Marko Želko

Keywords: digitisation, recycling, waste, urbanisation


This article is part of joint project of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and the Anton Korošec Institute (INAK) Following the path of digitalization in Slovenia and Europe. This project receives funding from the European Parliament.  The information and views set out in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union institutions/Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies/ Anton Korošec Institute. Organizations mentioned above assume no responsibility for facts or opinions expressed in this article or any subsequent use of the information contained therein.