From cutting-edge advancements in sortation that rely on sensors and AI, to digital tools for recycling education, truck cameras and live video, and software-enabled route optimization, technology is creating new ways for solid waste leaders to keep streams clean by influencing every aspect of the material journey from collection point to depot.
By Brandy Welvaert
Exciting new technologies for MRF sortation that use sensors and artificial intelligence continue to emerge and improve, but not every waste organization is positioned to beat contamination on the sorting line. Even for those that are, a multi-pronged approach to fighting contamination, empowered by various kinds of technology, will help keep recycling streams clean today and in the future.
Forward-thinking leaders in solid waste know that the battle for clean materials is most effectively waged across many fronts. From recycling bins in homes to the hoppers of collection vehicles, and along waste-collection routes, technology provides scalable opportunities to educate people about proper disposal and monitor what is being collected—all while saving time along routes that can put to good use for boots-on-the-ground initiatives to stop contamination in its tracks.
Digital Tools Help People to Recycle Right
At home and on campus, digital communication tools help keep recycling streams clean, meaning less time, effort, and money spent on sortation once materials arrive at the MRF. The City of Sunnyvale, CA began using digital tools for recycling education in 2017. It is no coincidence that over the last several years, recycling contamination has declined significantly, and the city is well on its way to meeting its Zero Waste goal of 90 percent landfill diversion by 2030. “Having these tools makes (recycling education) more efficient for us,” says Sunnyvale Environmental Programs Manager, Karen Gissibl.
The city’s waste app, “How To Get Rid Of Anything”, provides people with an always-on resource when they are not sure how to dispose of something. People can access the searchable database, which provides specific information for disposal, via smartphone app or website widget on the Sunnyvale website. Rather than filling their recycling containers with items they wish were recyclable, people in Sunnyvale do a quick search and recycle right.
With digital tools in place, not only is contamination down, but staff members also spend less time on the phone answering questions about what goes where. Between 2017 and 2020, call volume decreased by about 3.5 percent even as service delivery increased nearly 50 percent. “We’re not spending as much staff time picking up the phone … and customers know they can just go to the website or use the app; it’s super convenient for them,” Gissibl says.
Municipalities are not the only ones finding success with digital tools for recycling education. Colleges and universities, too, are fostering positive disposal behaviors with mobile solutions that effectively serve diverse, on-the-move populations.
The University of Michigan is a leader in waste and diversion efforts, having placed first in the 2022 Campus Race to Zero Waste. To help people understand and engage in campus recycling at an award-winning level, the office of campus sustainability leverages digital communication tools similar to those in Sunnyvale.1
Real-Time Video Gives Drivers an ‘Inside’ Look at Contamination
Today, most municipalities and haulers use in-cab technology to support driver productivity. Such technology lets drivers record a contaminated bin with photo evidence when appropriate. Then they can educate the right homes and businesses.
When it comes to education and engagement, some cities and haulers tag carts with an educational message or “oops” tag during curbside contamination audits. An “oops” tag attached to a contaminated recycling cart is “one of the most effective ways to reduce contamination,” according to a 2021 report from the Solid Waste Association of North America’s Applied Research Foundation. (The report is available to SWANA members.)
Truck cameras and video provide other benefits, too—from evidence to protect a hauler from liability in the case of an accident, to enhanced safety and accident prevention. New York City hauler Gaeta Green Environmental Services, for example, sends a live feed from the back of trucks into the cab to help drivers with backing up—one of a collection vehicle’s most dangerous moves.
Better Routes Means More Time to Educate One-On-One
To stem contamination and encourage proper recycling, collection staff in the growing City of Loveland, CO are tasked with checking carts for contamination and placing “info tags” on out-of-compliance carts. They also often are stopped by customers who have questions, says Crew Supervisor Nathan Rasmussen.
Several years ago, however, exponential population growth had caused collection routes to become seriously unbalanced. Drivers “were throwing and going,” Rasmussen says, with no time for personal interactions or cart tagging—the kind of boots-on-the-ground education that can make a big difference in reducing contamination, not to mention improving customer satisfaction.
That is when solid waste superintendent Tyler Bandemer got serious about using route optimization software to balance routes and reduce the number of stops some drivers were handling. The outcomes were significant, with the number of stops on the average route decreasing by about 30 percent. With a little bit of breathing room on their routes, drivers again have time for the part of the job that is perhaps most meaningful to them: customer interactions.
Drivers now monitor collected materials, tag carts to help people understand how to use programs properly, and answer customer questions as they crop up along the way. In fact, the city built time for these activities into its original route optimization assessment—a testament to their commitment to sustainability and customer service.
Playing the Long Game
A modern, effective approach to beating contamination must involve technology both inside and outside the MRF. From cutting-edge advancements in sortation that rely on sensors and AI, to digital tools for recycling education, to truck cameras and live video, and to software-enabled route optimization that supports boots-on-the-ground interactions, technology is creating new ways for solid waste leaders to keep streams clean by influencing every aspect of the material journey from collection point to depot. These tech-enabled efforts are helping leaders today to keep streams cleaner, recover more materials, and ensure that their programs and services remain sustainable for years to come. | WA
Brandy Welvaert is a solid waste and recycling communication consultant for Routeware, Inc., which provides integrated technology for waste and recycling. She has 20 years of communication experience, including a decade spent serving municipalities, non-profit organizations, and technology companies advancing the circular economy. For more information, contact Erika Kempff, Head of Marketing, at [email protected].
1. Both entities partnered with Routeware, Inc. to launch apps powered by