Antoni Llabrés Payeras | ENT environment & management

We find ourselves in a climate emergency in which the waste management sector plays a pivotal role. Each European citizen produces an average of 482 kilograms of household waste per year, of which only 45% is recycled. Another 23% ends up in landfills with consequent environmental problems. Furthermore, much unaccounted for waste ends up directly in the environment [1]. The European Commission is taking steps through legislation and ambitious objectives; however, Member States are still far from meeting them. Only 6 out of the 28 Member States have reached the goal of 50% recycling set for 2020. Some countries like Spain are further behind, with recycling rates of less than 35% [2].

Cities concentrate a large part of waste generation and therefore become protagonists in adopting innovative solutions to the problem of municipal waste. The solutions that we adopt in our cities in the present will be decisive in reaching the objectives of recycling set out by European, national, and regional legislation.

There is consensus in the waste management sector that in order to achieve these objectives citizens must be made responsible for separate collection. Therefore, the loss of anonymity in waste management collection is imperative. In the case of small municipalities, the success of this model has been proven through door-to-door collection systems. Currently more than 300 municipalities throughout Spain have demonstrated that separate collection levels are well above the average. The challenge of identifying users becomes more difficult in large municipalities, where vertical urbanism dominates and population densities are higher. In these contexts, door-to-door systems are more difficult to implement and waste collection in many cases will continue to be based on the use of large communal containers in the street.

In large cities, user anonymity can be addressed by the closing of containers and the identification of the user. Currently three technologies are being used: 1) The RFID system, which works by radio-frequency. The user requires a card or with a chip that is recognized by the container to open it. It is currently the most widespread; 2) The NFC system, which uses an electronic device in the container to recognize the user via an electronic device such as a smart phone. The user must have a mobile phone with this technology to open the container; 3) QR codes. Codes may be attached to the container for the user to take a photo. Alternatively, QR codes are attached to the garbage bags and scanned by a reader installed in the container [3].

These technologies allow the option of limiting the users of each container and the hours of use. Additionally, if modifications are made to container lids to include volume or weight meters, it is possible to accurately know the waste disposed of by each user, which facilitates application of pay-as-you-throw waste charges.

Many companies and municipalities are betting heavily on this technology. Although in Spain there are few cases currently in operation, the known cases deliver good results. It should be noted, however, that the adaptation of waste containers is quite expensive at the moment, between 300 and 1,400 euros per container.

Technology currently known in user identification can be divided into two types: 1) mandatory use, in which the containers are closed and therefore it is mandatory for all users to identify themselves in order to deposit waste; 2) voluntary use, in which the containers remain open and the technology is solely used by those who choose to participate, thereby generally receiving some kind of bonus or reduction of the waste charge.

Although closing containers may seem to be an effective option off the bat, we must keep in mind that such systems are susceptible to incorrect use. The containers still remain in the street, and, although the user is identifiable, it is not quite as easy to identify the garbage disposed of by each user. Some strategies to address this are recurrent inspections or distribution of bags with an identification code; however, these options are even more expensive and lean to the dynamics of social control, which would require political will.

Any system change or introduction of new technology in a daily gesture such as throwing away garbage must go hand in hand with strong informational and educational campaigns. Furthermore, in the case that an administration chooses to invest in this type of system, taking into consideration its expense and susceptibility to malpractice, it is important to ensure the acceptance and support of a large portion of affected citizens to increase chances of success.

How do we think that citizens will react to these changes? How should educational campaigns be oriented?

Some citizens may be reluctant to submit to the social control possibly associated with this type of technology, as it creates data about when, where, and what type of waste each user disposes of. Additionally, in some cases there is a general public opinion that public money is poorly invested. Also, waste is often not considered a priority in the eyes of citizens. Consequently, if the high cost of the technology is not accompanied by strong educational campaigns, it may not be well received by users.

It is fundamental that informative campaigns explaining the functionality of container closure and user identification are carried out before system implementation. When citizens are aware of the system’s purpose, it is easier for them to accept it. It is also important to communicate carefully what will be done with the information generated and the type of data security system. Transparency in this aspect can prevent misunderstandings.

Although technology can be a good ally in facing the sustainability transition, we must take into consideration the magnitude and transversality that the change from conventional to intelligent containers entails. A system change in the waste management model is underway, in which technology assumes a central role in the daily act of throwing away garbage. It is therefore indispensable that we face this change in a communicative, transversal and socially integrative way.

[1] EUROSTAT, 2017.,_incinerated,_recycled_and_comp
[2] EUROSTAT, 2017.
[3] ENT & UPC (2019) User identification for municipal waste collection in high-density contexts. Circular Design Project.