A Waste of Technology

A recent story in USA Today reports that consumers are befuddled by the complexities of sorting out their bottles, cans and plastics, and tossing the appropriate items into a recycling bin. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling rates rose from 6.6 percent of waste in 1970 to 34.5 percent in 2012. Since then, it has trended downward.

The culprit? Confusion over what to recycle. Various guidelines, standards and packaging schemes have led to consumers tossing up their arms or tossing items into the garbage bin when they aren’t sure what to do.

As a result, contamination rates are on the rise. The newspaper notes that contamination rates have risen from 8 percent to 16 percent over the last decade.

An organization, Recycle Across America, thinks it has an answer: Enlist celebrities such as Kristen Bell and Mark Ruffalo to advise viewers, “Let’s recycle right.” The campaign also includes billboards and print ads aimed at educating consumers.

Though the general concept is good, there’s a big problem with it. It ignores the fact that when the vast majority of a group or society can’t do something right, it’s probably not a problem with the vast majority of the group or society. The problem is that the underlying system is fundamentally broken.

Waste management and recycling fit the bill. They are incredibly inefficient systems run with 20th century technology. E-waste is yet another nightmare.

It’s clear that better technology needs to come to the rescue, including sensors and RFID. In the case of waste management, tagging and connecting items may be part of the solution.

For instance, Cisco reports that Cincinnati reduced residential waste by 17 percent, and recycling volume swelled by 49 percent with real-time data about the waste stream. Yet, it’s also clear that we need smarter receptacles that can notify vehicle operators when they are full. In Lahti, Finland, officials were able to increase recycling rates by more than 90 percent.

All of this could introduce pay-per-use models and incentives for both businesses and consumers.

As Joe Lamano, a principal at consulting firm PwC, states: “Wouldn’t it be great if we had sensors inside our bins to know that it’s almost at capacity, and for companies to have the business model that says, we see that your recycling bin is full, so we will pick it up. And if you want an early pickup, you can schedule it with your smartphone for x amount of dollars?

“We need new business models that take advantage of today’s technology.”