Innovation at the service of smart waste management

IoT, robotics, AI, blockchain: from a circular economy point of view, new technologies enable public bodies and businesses in the sector to optimise the sorting, collection, and treatment of waste as well as improve their cost management.

“This type of solution makes it possible to reduce the costs and externalities of waste collection.”

An essential component of the “smart city”, smart waste management with digital and technological innovations enables public bodies and specialised businesses to find new answers to the challenges of the ecological transition and competitiveness.

Optimising waste collection thanks to the IoT

Based on the “smart bin” concept – sensors installed on waste containers measure their fill level and/or the composition of the waste – several startups have developed solutions to help cities and businesses optimise the collection of different material flows.

According to Berg Insight, a market research firm specialised in machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT, there should be 1.5 million smart waste collection points in the world in 2023.

French company sigrenEa, acquired by Suez in 2016, has become a leader in this field. Based in Orléans, it sells a smart turnkey solution for waste collection management. This solution combines ultrasound sensors that are installed in the containers and collect filling data, with a visualisation and analysis tool for this data.

This enables the providers in charge of waste collection to plan routes better, based on real-time historical data.

Near Lyon, Suez has opened a management centre with the aim of analysing and exploiting all the data generated by the smart sensors on its installations, be these vehicles or containers. The objective: to help businesses in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes et Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions to improve their waste management and recycling.

This type of solution makes it possible to reduce the costs and externalities of waste collection. Indeed, smart management of vehicle fleets and container parks leads to a reduction in truck journeys and thus of maintenance costs, fuel consumption, and carbon emissions.

Sorting-robots at Veolia

IoT is not the only technology that can be used to improve waste management. The combination of robotics and artificial intelligence is giving rise to novel solutions for increased and improved sorting.

As early as 2018, Apple developed Daisy, its recycling robot that is “able to disassemble 15 different iPhone models at the rate of 200 per hour” in order to recover important materials for re-use.

In the same vein, a research team from the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has presented a robotic sorting system that can detect if an object is paper, metal or plastic, by combining computer vision with tactile sensors.

These innovations are bringing about a new generation of sorting centres. For several years now, Veolia, a waste management and recycling company, has thus been seeking to increase sorting performance with the automatic sorting of packaging according to material and colour (based on an algorithm and an optical sorter), and remotely-operated sorting (refining sorting thanks to touchscreens).

To complement these solutions, since 2018 the company has been testing a smart sorting-robot designed by American engineers. According to the company, “Max-AI is the combination of an ‘eye’, a simple optical camera, and an ‘arm’, an articulated robot, controlled by a ‘brain’, a neural network implanted in a computer”. This robot is operational in Amiens, a first in France and in Europe.

Giving value to plastic waste thanks to blockchain

Although the principle of payment for waste collection isn’t new (deposit, informal recovery), a handful of startups are using to turn this activity into a greater and more viable source of income.

In developing countries, these startups hope to both stem pollution and fight poverty, all the while contributing to the integration of street collectors into the formal waste management systems.

In developed countries, they seek to encourage a collective effort in terms of waste reduction (several initiatives based on new technologies, such as Cliiink, already reward sorting). The idea? To monetise waste, primarily plastic, by giving out digital tokens, with exchanges taking place in a secure manner and with no intermediary thanks to blockchain.

This is the case of startup Empower which, in taking inspiration from the Norwegian plastic bottle deposit system, “is tokenising plastic waste”. It has created a fund to which (business and individual) sponsors wishing to finance clean-up operations contribute, this is then used to pay those who participate. This payment takes the shape of tokens, called Empower Coins, that are issued by the company and paid out for each waste batch deposited at a collection point.

Present in over fifteen countries, Empower has organised dozens of clean-up operations the world over in cooperation with NGOs and local authorities who retrieve the waste collected and ensure that it is duly recycled.

It is the same principle at The Plastic Bank. Established in Haiti, Indonesia, and the Philippines, this company pays thousands of waste collectors who bring their booty to recycling centres, which are true little community shops where plastic waste can be exchanged for tokens, goods, or services. The material collected is then recycled, thanks to partnerships with major companies, to make new products such as shampoo bottles.

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