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How big data can help manage waste

Analytics and big data can lessen the amount of waste being created.


One of my favourite movies is the Pixar 2008 animated movie WALL-E which follows the adventures of a cute little trash compactor robot in the year 2805 whose job it is to clean cities filled with mountains of trash.

Humans had abandoned the earth centuries before due to all the garbage but left recycling robots behind to try and clean up the mess. WALL-E was the last remaining robot and he diligently continued cleaning up every day.

The film is today recognised as social criticism and particularly questions the prevailing consumerism so rampant across the world today.

The World Bank predicts that municipal waste generation is expected to reach 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025. The urban poor in developing countries are impacted the most as waste is mostly managed unsustainably with unregulated and poor practices of waste disposal leading to environmental, health and safety problems.

Kenya has already implemented the world’s toughest ban on plastic bags and despite many challenges, it has already influenced many communities in a very positive way. Though the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) has cancelled its plans to ban plastic bottles, it is working closely with manufacturers and other organisations to effectively recycle bottles.

Johannesburg in South Africa also implemented compulsory recycling for its residents from July 2018 as the city’s largest refuse dump, the Robinson Deep landfill, is expected to reach capacity within three years. Currently only 10 per cent of the city’s waste is being recycled.

Plastic waste at sea

The Future of the Sea report, released in March 2018 for the UK government, found that people produce more than 300 million metric tons of plastic per year. A lot of this ends up as waste in our oceans and the research suggests that plastic waste in the sea will increase from 50 million metric tons in 2015 to 150 million metric tons by 2025.

Now all statistics show that we need to urgently find solutions to minimise and manage waste more effectively. I have previously written on how many Fourth Industrial Revolution tools and technologies such as big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) can assist us with improving many industries such as property, construction and even farming.

So how can the Fourth Industrial Revolution be utilised in tackling the challenges of waste and refuse? I recently had the opportunity to meet some industry colleagues from Infomedia (a Danish media intelligence company) who shared a fascinating story with me.

The Roskilde Music Festival in Denmark was founded in 1971 by two students, Mogens Sandfær and Jesper Switzer Møller, and promoter Carl Fischer. In the subsequent decades, it has become one of the world’s biggest and most popular music festivals, attracting hundreds of thousands of people and hosting some of the world’s biggest artists.

Big Data analysis

The Copenhagen Business School and Infomedia partnered with the festival to analyse a lot of big data which was being generated by the festival’s app, social media channels and many data signals from other sensors. The result was a compelling case study of how big data can influence our lives in ways we cannot even imagine. This project correctly predicted that some stages had too little capacity for the predicted audience turnout. They could also improve crowd movements, indicate where food stalls would be better positioned and even measured queue data to improve crowd control.

As many would know, one of the most unpleasant experiences in attending any such big event is utilising the portable toilets. By using sensors in the individual toilet systems, the festival could improve the attendees experience by identifying individual toilets which needed waste removed. Whereas waste removal operators would normally work on a schedule to clean up certain sections of toilets, it could now be done on an individual basis when required. This greatly reduced unpleasant odours in these specific festival areas.

Now I have heard of many uses for big data but measuring toilets was not one I expected. But it certainly shows that we are just still scratching the surface of the benefit that the collection, measurement and analysis of big data can bring us.

Waste collection is an absolute essential service of any city’s operations and in many cases takes up a considerable part of the budget. A first step would be to improve efficiencies in waste collection. According to Navigant Research, a market research and consulting firm, smart waste collection technology is expected to grow globally from USD57.6 million in 2016 to over USD223.6 million in 2025.

This creates many opportunities from utilising “connected” trucks, improving collection as when needed (rather than scheduled weekly routes), route optimisation through to identifying specific areas which may need an educational approach to improving waste creation and recycling.

Automated technologies are also being developed and these can assist with recycling. UK supermarket chain Tesco already introduced fully automated recycling machines as far back as 2004 where plastics, glass and metal could be sorted without human intervention. The company believed that it would assist in dramatically improving the amount of waste that was being recycled.

Analytics and big data can lessen the amount of waste being created. United Nations research claims that up to a third of all food produced in the world is being wasted. In 2016, France became the first country to ban supermarkets throwing away unsold food, rather forcing them to provide leftover stock to charities.

Quantzig, an analytics and advisory firm, says that big data and analytics can help food suppliers analyse and predict consumer and seasonal demand, location data, weather patterns, the supply chain processes and much more. This would assist farmers and retailers in reaching an “optimum inventory level” which would greatly reduce food wastage.

I gladly embrace recycling and pledge to reduce the amount of waste I create. I certainly do not want my grandchildren to leave on a star ship one day because we neglected to leave them a beautiful planet.

Francois van Dyk, @sbalie, heads up Operations at Ornico, the Brand Intelligence research company. He worked in public relations before entering the world of media research.


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