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Driverless sanitation vehicles, recyclables sorting robots and landfill drones. Twenty years ago, these were little more than amusing catch phrases bandied about at conferences by recycling and waste industry players claiming to see the future.

No one believed they would become a reality or that technology within the industry was to be seen as a competitive advantage. Today, recycling and waste companies of every size are re-examining their priorities and their processes with a single goal in mind; to streamline the their processes and gain the competitive advantage by “embracing the next technological advancement.”

At a recent discussion on the future of the waste industry in Washington D.C., International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) president, Antonis Mavropoulos noted that the industry will need to embrace technological innovations to make operations more efficient, environmentally sound and safe.

In addition to such innovations as fleet management software and cloud-based applications that are currently being used for logistics and internal communications, the increased use of technology and data analysis will continue to streamline industry operations. In fact, Mavropoulos noted that companies like Volvo are planning to introduce driverless garbage trucks and other various robots that can make collecting, transferring and sorting waste more efficient and advanced.

“The waste industry is experiencing an influx of technological innovation: advanced routing software, new and improved compaction equipment, more fuel efficient and alternative fuel trucks, smart dumpsters with fill sensors among many other great advancements,” said Matthew Hollis of Elytus, a company that incorporates its innovative technology solution, WINStream, that transparently connects trash haulers to clients, audits waste streams for savings and environmental optimization, and helps reduce the operational waste of time, money and human resources .

As Hollis explained, additional technologies are causing breakthroughs in Elytus’ ability to recycle items that weren’t recyclable prior to the creation of these additional resources from waste.

“As our country works to reduce the overall volume of generated waste and divert more waste from landfills, the cost of disposal will eventually rise,” Hollis said. “However, by leveraging these technologies vendors can reduce service times, increase route density and create other operational efficiencies allowing them to maintain a sustainable margin for their business while serving the needs of the customer.”

Taking advantage of these various technological advancements will allow vendors to stay competitive in the marketplace. Solid waste generators will continue to become savvier and look to increase recycling and divert more waste. Through understanding and the adoption of these technologies, vendors can provide the customers what they want while also maintaining an operating margin that’s healthy for their business.  

“The best thing service vendors and operators can do is evaluate the long-term cost of the technology,” Hollis said. “Understand the true operational impact of what they’re choosing to source and whether or not it will create a lasting positive to their bottom line.”

Environmental Impact & Big Data

Data has become so prominent in the waste management industry that tracking and analyzing data has become an intrinsic part of the process. Now stakeholders expect the waste and recycling industry to use the data and insights to drive positive outcomes from the waste management process and quantify its value.

Since regulatory standards have tightened and the public is concerned about the environmental impact of waste disposal, best practices in waste management are evolving. One of the ways that technology is helping the waste industry is with improvements in the planning, implementation, and monitoring of these waste disposal processes. The technologies and methodologies, which make all of this analysis possible, have been developed and refined by thought leaders in the green tech industry.

Omar Abou-Sayed, founder and chief executive officer of Advantek Waste Management Services, said that “big data” is becoming the standard for the safe disposal of solid waste.

“It is no longer acceptable to gather the bare minimum of data required by regulation: a continual flow of real time information is required for proper analysis and diagnostics,” Abou-Sayed said. “Facilities are turning to cloud-based tech solutions to manage this data and mine it for relevant insights on the health and safety of an injection well for solid waste disposal.” Empowered by this information, operators can make smart decisions about the management of their facilities.

Technology & Safety

Technological advancements within the recycling and waste industry go hand-in-hand with safety issues facing the industry.

Lytx’s flagship product, DriveCam, offers video telematic solutions to improve fleet safety and reduce associated costs.

One pattern the company has seen is the rise of driver distractions as autonomous features continue to enter the cab. For example, a driver may use a technology’s cue to tell them when they’re drifting out of the lane, rather than monitoring it themselves. This type of behavior is especially dangerous for waste and recycling drivers, who need to be on constant alert for children running into the street, wires hanging between roads, trash and recycling receptacles in the street, or any other unforeseen scenario that they see every day.

“We all know that being a solid waste driver is a dangerous job, and organizations within the waste industry – whether private companies or municipalities – are looking for more efficient ways to measurably improve safety and reduce risk without burdening their operations teams,” said Lytx’s Vice president of Safety Services, Del Lisk.

Safety technologies like video telematics, and the programs they power help to improve safe driving behaviors resulting in preventing costly collisions before they happen, and more importantly, getting drivers home safely at the end of each shift.

“Video telematics in the vein that Lytx delivers identify unsafe driving behaviors and giving fleet managers the tools and insights needed to coach and improve performance,” Lisk said. “Video telematics pulls double-duty by providing the video evidence and related vehicle data to help exonerate drivers and protect companies in the event of a false or fraudulent claim.”

One Lytx client, City of Denver Solid Waste, initially adopted the DriveCam program to reduce fuel usage, but inevitably found that a data-based training program could significantly improve their drivers’ performance. The director Lars Williams explained that changing distracted driving behaviors already ingrained in the younger generation of drivers, particularly the usage of cellphones in the cab, is a nearly impossible task – until you introduce video telematics into their training process, which both holds drivers accountable for their actions and shows them how this dangerous behavior can result in deadly incidents. Not only did the City of Denver see a return on its entire $100,000 state-awarded grant within the first year in fuel savings alone, but the number of collisions fell 50 percent over 30 months.

According to Lisk, improving safety and maintaining a strong safety culture is critical for solid waste organizations, especially given the job’s dangerous nature, and fleet managers can use all the help they can get managing that risk. In addition to keeping workers safe, fleet managers are always looking for ways to boost efficiencies and productivity. Video telematics technologies are not only helping keep workers and the communities they serve safe, they’re helping companies improve their bottom line and maintain a positive brand reputation.

“We’ve also seen our event recorders used by waste and recycling workers in unique ways, including capturing video evidence of things encountered on the job,” Lisk said. For example, waste collectors have manually turned on their DriveCam event recorders to show hazardous materials wrongfully put out for collection, wires or other obstructions in the way of their pickup, or to prove they were at a site at a certain time.

On the Horizon

During the past 50 years, technology has dramatically changed how the waste and recycling management industry does business. Technology advancements have driven companies to reinvent themselves and their internal processes. This reality, coupled with the ever-changing nature of the technology arena, has resulted in a continuous revolving door of technology updates and equipment improvements throughout the industry.

With each new day, technology brings recycling businesses exciting opportunities for growth and success. As businesses grow, they encounter tough decisions regarding how to best use the technology available. Should they hire an online consultant for their technological needs? How frequently must software applications be updated? And so on.

As operators identify the areas within their business that could use improvement – whether collision frequency, route or fuel inefficiencies, or reputation management – they should understand these are the areas where technology can and should have a real impact.

Lisk recommended looking for technology platforms that can take advantage of innovations as they occur, and that can be sized according to your organization. It’s also smart to consider the operational burden of the proposed technology.

“Another consideration is whether the program delivers insights instead of raw data,” Lisk said. “Without analytics to make sense of data generated, technology can sometimes create more work and more confusion for an organization and make it more difficult to effect change.”

Published in the August 2017 Edition of American Recycler News