Smart waste management with IoT technology
Waste is a mounting issue that companies, communities, and governments are seeking to address. The United Nations estimates that 11.2 billion tons are collected worldwide each year.1 By implementing smart waste management solutions—the use of technology to manage waste processes—gains can be made in energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. Keys to a smart waste strategy are sensor-based technologies like Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). The result is that your business can effectively help lessen your environmental footprint by reducing waste production and the energy requirements that surround it.
The environmental impact of waste
The world operates on the production and consumption of goods and resources—and the byproduct of that is waste. We cannot get away from producing waste, but we can improve and reduce how much is produced and how it’s processed. Historically, inefficient waste practices pose a significant threat to our environment through production, shipping, and end of life disposal.
Add to that, raw materials—like food products, wood, and cotton—require significant energy to produce. These materials enter the supply chain where more energy is required from a variety of sources. Shipping and storage surrounds all directions of raw material lifecycles. And in all of this, there’s a contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, significantly so as indicated by manufacturing and transportation being two industries that contribute to GHG the most.
It's not just production and shipping that has an impact on the environment, though. So does waste disposal. When waste is improperly collected and disposed of, it can contaminate the surrounding ecosystem and pose a risk to human health. For example, if electronic waste, or e-waste, from machines and devices is thrown into a landfill instead of being properly recycled, it can leach toxic chemicals into the soil.
Even responsible disposal can release harmful greenhouse gases. Items like food, paper, wood, and plastics release methane, nitrous oxide, and other GHGs when they breakdown in a landfill or are burned at a solid waste combustion facility. In fact, municipal solid waste landfills account for 14.3% of human-related methane emissions in the U.S.2
One solution to minimize waste and the resulting GHGs is to address it through best practice waste disposal in business and production. Such practices improve a company’s environmental footprint—a requirement as governing agencies and consumers are demanding accountability and transparency of businesses. Implementing smart waste management can help to cut costs related to waste collection and disposal. The benefits echo throughout the production process. Smart waste management and implementing a reduce, reuse, and recycle strategy may help to lower dependency on raw resources, some if which may be dwindling or growing in cost to attain… costs that are passed down to consumers.
How does smart waste management work?
Smart waste management systems leverage connected technologies like IoT and AI to help you become more resource and waste efficient. By connecting equipment and other devices to the internet with an embedded sensor or software, IoT services allow you to remotely monitor and control your equipment. The embedded sensor collects data and through cloud connectivity, shares it via the cloud, where software processes it.
From there, your teams can access and analyze the data and decide which actions to take. And if artificial intelligence (AI) solutions are integrated into this strategy it can provide analytic recommendations or make automated adjustments based on pre-determined parameters. This level of technology- and cloud-based efficiency can help to reduce hardware dependency, energy usage, and even impact how much e-waste is produced.
Diving in a bit more into IoT for smart waste management, an IoT-connected device can be monitored, tracked, and controlled in near-to real time. This process generates and transmits data for its assigned function. This data can enable you to better understand how much waste your business is producing, where it is coming from, and how to reduce it.
IoT also allows you to control equipment remotely. The ripple effect here is that with the right solutions in place, such as IoT video intelligence and voice and collaboration tools, technicians can advise or repair issues remotely, thereby cutting emissions that normally would be generated through commuting. And when using IoT for predictive maintenance, your systems can operate with fewer interruptions and costly downtime.
Enabling smart waste management with 5G and edge computing
IoT-enabled smart waste management systems can help you reduce waste by offering detailed data about your operations. However, before integrating IoT, your business needs to have a network with the bandwidth, speeds, and reliability to support data-rich technologies. The foundation for this is business fiber internet. But with this, 5G and edge computing solutions are important additions to help reinforce the speed and effectiveness you need to be efficient in controlling business waste.
Think of applying edge computing and 5G like shortening a commute. Edge cloud services reduce the distance that data has to travel, by processing it at or near where the data is generated or where the user accessing it is located (i.e., on the “edge”). On-premise edge technology keeps your data on-site for faster and more private processing. 5G can help mobile data travel faster than previous generations, such as 3G or 4G, and by using higher radio frequencies called millimeter waves, or mmwaves, the bandwidth gains are substantial.
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Technology-enabled waste reduction and use cases by industry
In addition to enabling smart waste management, companies across industries are implementing connectivity technologies to use resources more efficiently and better manage waste. In the case of leveraging IoT, here are a few examples.
Manufacturing: Each day, companies send millions of goods across the world. They’re often loaded and transported on wooden pallets to make it easier for products to be moved with equipment like forklifts. However, traditional pallets are lost or broken easily, and often end up in landfills.
RM2 developed more durable pallets made from plastic and fiberglass composite to cut down on this shipping waste. These BLOCKPal pallets can be used 162 times before they need to be replaced. To help improve value and integrate global tracking, RM2 enabled the pallets with AT&T IoT technology.
Global tracking decreases the likelihood that the pallet is lost and needs to be replaced. This further helps supply chain operators better understand how inventory moves through their supply chain and discover possible efficiencies. RM2 estimates that if a company managing 1 million wood pallet trips annually were to fully transition to BLOCKPal pallets, they could reduce emissions by 640 metrics tons of CO2e each year. That’s equivalent to switching 22,600 incandescent bulbs to LEDs.
Construction: The construction industry contributes approximately 12 million tons of asphalt shingles annually to landfills in the U.S. alone.3 This is only a percentage of construction waste globally that includes insulation, bricks, and an array of hazardous materials. While some of those materials can be intended for a next use, repurposed, or recycled, a lot of that waste ends up in landfills. While buildings and infrastructure will always need to be created or repaired, construction companies can help reduce this waste by improving the efficiency of their operations.
GCP Applied Technologies is a global provider of construction products. They implemented AT&T IoT connectivity to help manage their Verifi® In-transit Concrete Management System. The system uses IoT to take readings from the batch of concrete and sends them to onboard computers. Then, the computers can automatically add water or chemical admixture. This can all happen while the concrete trucks are in-transit, so the concrete is ready to pour when the truck arrives at the job-site. And, equally importantly, this system helps minimize wasted materials and ensures concrete quality.
Energy: The United Nations estimates that 931 million tons of food go to waste each year.4 Most of that waste ends up in landfills where it releases methane. Organic waste recycling can repurpose this food waste and turn it into renewable energy. However, scalable organic waste recycling systems haven’t had widespread adoption in the marketplace.
AT&T helped connect Grind2Energy’s system with IoT technology to help their customer get more value out of their recycling efforts. Grind2Energy equips large scale food operations with the technology to process food scraps and store the processed scraps in onsite, IoT-equipped tanks. These tanks can provide near real-time capacity and water pressure data and information.
This data helps customers track their food waste generation to help them manage avoidable food waste. The IoT technology also helps Grind2Energy reduce costs and achieve efficiencies by monitoring tanks’ capacity, so Grind2Energy knows when to dispatch their trucks to empty them. This can help eliminate wasted trips and fuel.
Businesses are becoming more aware of how and where waste is produced through manufacturing, storage, shipping, and basic day-to day operations. Add to that, regulations and consumer demand for transparency and accountability in sustainable practices will continue to evolve. The result is that technology-based innovative solutions to manage waste will continue to hit the market. It’s imperative to have a foundation in place to ease adoption of these opportunities. This foundation isn’t only the technology itself, but support across the business.
How AT&T uses smart waste management
As mentioned earlier, AI can be an important tool in smart waste management. It’s a particularly powerful tool for waste recognition, that is, identifying the class waste materials belong in so they can be appropriately processed or disposed. For example, to help tackle the challenge of improper waste disposal, we’ve piloted a smart recycling assistant that analyzes whether food and beverage containers are recyclable or compostable. Local recycling laws are included in its algorithm. From this, the assistant guides users to the correct bin. Since being installed at our Dallas headquarters cafeteria in December 2022, the assistant has increased waste diverted from landfills at that cafeteria from 30% to 45%.
In addition, we’ve collaborated with Microsoft to help solution providers offer customers private 5G cellular networks. AT&T provides a managed service comprised of licensed spectrum and radios for 5G use and when combined with Microsoft’s private 5G core, solution providers can offer dedicated 5G connectivity with an on-premises edge computing solution.
This new AT&T managed service prioritizes cost, security, flexibility and ease of use. The technology is currently in preview phase. Companies looking for fast, secure, and reliable connections for their IoT applications can take advantage of both 5G and edge computing to speed up data processing. That speed can be critical when monitoring important or sensitive equipment.
5G networks make it possible for business to think differently and drive innovation in all areas, including leveraging smart waste management to improve their environmental footprint and reduce costs.
Smart waste management is helping businesses to reduce their environmental impact through delivering insights into how they produce and manage waste. From the mining of raw materials to shipping, storage, consumption, and disposal, there are many opportunities for businesses to have positive contribution to environmental sustainability.
Ensuring your business has the infrastructure to adopt data rich-technologies like IoT and AI positions you to integrate smart waste management into your operations. These technologies can help you better meet regulatory and consumer expectations for environmental accountability and improve the energy efficiency of your business and the financial benefits that come with it.
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1United Nations Environmental Programme. “Solid waste management.” https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/resource-efficiency/what-we-do/cities/solid-waste-management
2Environmental Protection Agency. “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2021.” https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks
3The Circular Economy of Tackling Climate Change, Northstar Clean Technologies, Accessed November 1, 2023, https://www.visualcapitalist.com/company_spotlight/northstarcleantech/.
4United Nations Environment Programme. “UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021.” March 4, 2021. https://www.unep.org/resources/report/unep-food-waste-index-report-2021