The economic cost of rubbish has been something of a political football in the UK of late. Many local councils have faced public outrage after cutting down bin collections from weekly to fortnightly.
In September 2011, communities secretary Eric Pickles laid the blame with the former Labour government. “Their policies of bin taxes, bin fines and bin cuts hammered hard-working households and fuelled fly-tipping,” he said.
Pickles announced a £250 million government fund to subsidise weekly rubbish collection, although according to The Daily Telegraph, not without opposition from within the cabinet.
In July 2011, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published an exhaustive report into the current state of waste management in the UK.
Perhaps surprisingly, the amount of waste the country produces is in decline. The weight of waste produced by homes and businesses fell from 180 million tonnes in 2006 to 165 million in 2008. Meanwhile, recycling has increased significantly, and the amount of rubbish that ends up in landfill has halved since 2000.
Nevertheless, waste presents an ongoing economic challenge. Everyone wants their rubbish to be disposed of, but no-one wants to pay for it themselves.
It is good news, therefore, that the waste management industry is turning to information technology in order to become more efficient.
The price of waste
SITA is a global waste management company whose services range from graffiti removal to industrial waste disposal, and which serves clients including local councils and private businesses. According to Jim Wilks, special projects manager at SITA UK, the waste management industry’s approach to disposal is evolving.
“Waste management is not just about hauling rubbish away any more,” he says. “It’s about finding the right destination for people’s discarded stuff, whether that is recycling, reuse or energy recovery.”
Although SITA says it is a company with a vision for “a society where there is no more waste”, it also has economic incentives for pursuing that utopian ideal. “In 2003, disposing of a tonne of waste cost about £5,” explains Wilks. “Now, it’s up to around £85 a tonne.”
A large chunk of that £85 comes from landfill tax. Established in 1996 by Conservative secretary of state for the environment John Gummer, it was the first environmental tax in the UK and was partly intended to incentivise organisations to pursue alternative forms of waste management. The tax will increase by £8 every year until 2014, when it will hit £80 per tonne, at which level it will remain until at least 2020.
SITA has applied a number of technologies to make waste management more efficient. Some of these measures address its own operating costs. For example, in the town of Warwick, SITA has analysed and optimised the collection routes of its refuse trucks, which Wilks says has reduced its fuel bills by around 12%. After the success of the Warwick pilot – which involved 12 vehicles – SITA is rolling the technology out to 650 vehicles across 32 sites.
SITA’s fleet also recently moved to a centralised model for fuel supply and management, using pumps and software from UK company Merridale. “We are now monitoring stock levels every 24 hours, and the Merridale system flags up any tank that reaches the re-order level,” the company has said of the deployment. “We then advise the depot manager that an order has been placed and provide the expected delivery date.” Like EcoTrak, the Merridale system is in pilot stage, with UK-wide roll-out under review.
Other efficiencies derive from improving communications between truck drivers and the depot. “Let’s say you’ve paid to have four bins lifted, but your gates are locked when we get there,” explains Wilks. “In the past, the driver would drive on and tell us he couldn’t get through the gates. You would phone us up and say, ‘Bloody SITA – you haven’t picked my bins up.’
“Now, however, the driver can record the fact that the gates are locked,” he says. “That info is sent back to the depot by 3G immediately. [The depot] can call the customer proactively and reorganise a pick-up that suits them.” This is both more efficient and a better customer experience, he says.
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SITA also uses mobile technology to improve its public relations, including a mobile application called LoveCleanStreets.
Originally developed for Lewisham Council in South London and now in operation across the capital, the app allows citizens to photograph incidents of fly-tipping and inappropriate waste disposal. Those photographs are geo-tagged and time stamped, and displayed on a map of the local area. As well as flagging up illegal rubbish dumping, residents can use the site to keep tabs on how well the local authorities are responding to their complaints.
When SITA is called out to deal with one of these incidents, the driver will take a photo of the clean-up job to prove that it has been done. “That can then be published on the web and we can say that we’re great and that we’re doing a good job,” Wilks says.
SITA’s binmen collect and transmit all this information using ruggedised mobile devices. As it happens, though, Wilks is considering whether more fragile but more powerful and cheaper consumer devices might be used in the future.
“If I spend half the amount of money on an iPhone than a ruggedised device, by the time I’ve thrown it away twice I will still have saved money,” he states. “By the time one of the drivers has lost two of them or broken two of them, it would probably be time to move on to the next thing anyway. The lifecycle of mobile devices is decreasing all the time, and that’s driving our thinking.”
Weighing the benefits
When it comes to managing the rubbish itself, SITA uses RFID tags and weight-scales to monitor how much waste it is processing and where. To analyse this information it uses software from UK-based analytics systems vendor AMCS.
According to AMCS, this allows waste management operators such as SITA to build a profit-and-loss calculation for every client and for every collection. “Up to 20% of customers are loss-making,” says AMCS’s business development director, Austin Ryan.
That doesn’t mean that certain neighbourhoods or business premises should be struck off from the rubbish collection rounds for being insufficiently cost effective, but it does help waste management providers identify areas where alternative approaches are needed.
One such approach is to encourage households to produce less waste. Halton Borough Council in Cheshire is using AMCS’s waste analysis technology to support a recycling reward programme. “Residents’ recycling bins are weighed, and they get reward points which they can then redeem locally,” Ryan explains.
This scheme demonstrates how technology can be used to encourage citizen participation not just in waste management but in waste reduction. This is essential, says Nigel Bridges, operations director of waste management software provider Whitespace.
“We used to just put all our stuff in a big fat bin, and every week the council would come along, pick it up and take it away,” he says. But as the tensions surrounding weekly bin collections show, that is no longer something that can be taken for granted.
This is why businesses, councils and consumers alike must pursue a “waste reduction agenda, rather than simply a recycling agenda”, he says. Making this agenda work will often require a greater degree of cooperation and information sharing between the parties than they are used to. “The only way that they can really pull together is by using technology,” Bridges says.
SITA’s Wilks agrees that sharing information is critical to waste reduction. For example, telling customers what the CO2 emissions connected to their waste disposal are can drive change in businesses and be profitable for SITA. “They can report back to their shareholders and the information itself becomes a commodity that we can sell,” Wilks says.
A lot of the information in the waste disposal supply chain is still locked away, he adds. But at least the industry is beginning to realise that the flow of information and the technology that supports it are critical to improving waste management.
“We’ve managed to persuade our board of directors that there is value in managing information, both for us and for our customers,” Wilks says. “We’re starting to see IT as an investment, not as a cost. The waste industry has definitely grown up in terms of what it can do with IT.”