The concept of big data has developed concern in some corners due to negative press over a range of issues, including potential data breaches, the misuse of information by collectors of data and overall privacy issues. This has resulted in a reluctance of many customers to provide valuable information to companies and/or public sector entities.
Despite the hurdles, big data, if handled properly, can provide benefits to both users and the collectors of the information. In the environmental services field, the ability to gather more detailed information on such issues as waste generation, collection levels, recycling rates and other metrics on a more granular level could be a significant benefit to all parties.
But for many solid waste and recycling industry, which are often considered a tradition-based industry, how can they tap big data and the analytics derived from amassing the information to improve their business and provide a better service to their customers.
What is Big Data?
So what exactly is big data? Essentially, big data is the amassing of significant amounts of information from multiple sources. The information is typically organized and then, often through the development of various logarithms, used to develop and execute various strategies.
The information can come from a host of sources, including actual business transactions, social media sites, customer transactions and other sources.
The terms big data and data analytics are sexy words that have seemed to be one of the buzzwords gaining traction over the past several years. The reality, however, is that the gathering of information by companies has been taking place for a long time. However, with the growth of the Internet and web-based portals, the volume of data has grown exponentially, which has provided an even greater amount of information for businesses and consumers to sift through.
Taking this massive amount of data, estimated to be as much as 40 zettabytes (a unit of information equal to one sextillion (1021) by the year 2020, is an overwhelming task. That figure will likely accelerate with the growth and popularity of social media sources on the Internet, which is generating more content.
What has been more challenging is that while in the not-so-distant past big data was essentially bringing together text-based information from a host of sources, the deluge of information from the Internet is adding video, audio and non-text-based information that are being added to the bucket of data. This is adding a significant level of complexity to the overall process of compiling and organizing data to determine what is valuable and what can be thrown out.
On the flip side, while getting some type of grip on data and developing some method to convert the information into a strategy is growing in importance, according to IBM, the lack of good quality data costs the U.S. economy around $3.1 trillion per year.
Big Data in the Waste and Recycling Industry
The use of big data by some firms in the waste and recycling industry will force more companies to get on board, creating greater competition. This idea that it is essential to develop and grow the amount of data their companies has will continue to be essential for success. One industry watcher notes that it is a mistake to look at data and analytics as a passing fancy that a company can just throw money at and forget about. It should be a key for a company to strengthen its business, both today and into the future.
While the costs can be significant, it is essential that companies continue to invest in the area, and not consider the initial, upfront cost to make the change.
For the waste industry, recognizing and investing time and efforts to create or strengthen data of customers and clients is something that should be addressed. Detailed analysis about consumers, generators can allow the service providers to adjust schedule, when to run routes and how to staff the company.
Once a company has committed to work to develop a more data-centric system to improve their operations the next step is determining how to execute on the mandate. The costs to developing the system can be significant. For large companies, the costs are a part of day-to-day business. However, smaller companies with limited budgets may feel hamstrung taking the next step.
Regardless, due to the importance of the investment, whether small or large, companies in the waste and recycling industry should make the commitment to develop this part of their business. There are several tools, both hardware and software, available that can gather and analyze data that would be relevant to the waste company’s business.
Focusing on the Right Data
Platforms from established companies can be expensive, so before a company jumps into the data collection area it is extremely important to identify key data points and insights the company is trying to get so it is not wasting time and money gathering information it will not benefit from
For those who work in disseminating big data, the first step is looking at the Four Vs:
- Volume: The data that companies collect from various sources. The more historical data collected, the more insight you can extract to make better business decisions. (IBM estimates that by 2020, 40 zettabytes of data will be created, 300 times the amount of data collected in 2005)
- Velocity: The speed that data streams in at. The faster the speed, the faster you can process information into your data and analytics platform to help you create timely and accurate reports.
- Variety: The data demographics. The more varied customer data you have, the more you will learn about customers and their needs.
- Veracity: The dependability and the different levels of frequency in which data is collected. Data must be consolidated, clean, consistent and current to determine the right business decisions.
For waste and recycling operators looking to either begin or expand their use of big data and using the information from the data to adjust their operations, there are a host of issues that need to first be considered.
One point constantly mentioned that when looking to compile data, especially from new sources, the breadth and type of data now available is likely far too complex for traditional software and/or spreadsheet programs the company is presently using.
But first, the environmental service industry needs to commit to advancing its technology. One high-tech firm that services the companies in the waste field, says that too many companies in the waste management industry are still stuck in more antiquated computer systems, noting that too many companies are still using MS-DOS systems and more limited software programs to compile the data needed to excel in the 21st century business world.
So, before many of these companies can jump on gathering more data as a fix to improve their bottom lines the industry needs to get up to speed with more advanced information and should consider relational databases and business intelligence to manage and understand older data before jumping into developing methods to apply data analytics to present-day market conditions.
Compiling Waste and Recycling Data
For the waste and recycling industry, the information available and should be compiled is a bit narrower in scope now, although understanding and using more data can help a company boost its bottom line while improving the service to its customers.
Regardless of the inertia that has kept many waste and recycling companies from embracing data-collection equipment, this sector is growing, and quite quickly. According to a recent report by Navigant Research, the global smart waste collection technology market is expected to grow from $57.6 million in 2016 to over $223.6 million in 2025, roughly a 16 percent annual growth rate. This technology includes sensors, robotics, apps, machine learning, automation and on-board computing system
Route Optimization for Haulers
One area that has been more quickly embraced is the use of data in developing route optimization programs for haulers. Transportation costs are a significant cost for recyclers and waste haulers. Streamlining the time spent driving between stops is an expense that adds up over a longer period. Transportation costs are significant, and with better data and the right software and hardware in place a company can see a significant cut in expenses in this area.
Dumpsters and Containers
A more recent development taking place is companies installing sensors in dumpsters and containers. Applying simple data analytics and data gathering tools such as sensors to the containers could eliminate the inefficiency of a scheduled collection and transform that passive method of waste operations into a more active one.
Going further, by using more advanced sensors and data analysis algorithms, waste and recycling companies can continue the arc from passive to reactive to a pro-active system that is able to forecast when containers are filled out to due to historical patterns, which optimize waste operations.
Example: Dublin Airport
One example is Ireland’s Dublin Airport which has hundreds of bins throughout the airport facility. Based on the frequency of overflow, airport operators scheduled maintenance to collect several times throughout the day resulting in more than 3,000 bin-collections per day. After installing a sensor solution, the collections per day dropped to less than 300 bins per day. While the savings range, some companies can realize as much as an 80 percent reduction in operating costs, although more typically the decrease ranges between 20-80 percent.
While having a sensor to indicate when the container is full is one being fully embraced, an enhanced version, which can identify what is in the container could be a major advantage, especially in the recycling sector. Reducing the pickups of half empty containers could reduce savings by 25 percent or more.
With markets for recyclables roiled by China’s tightened quality specifications, the ability of a collector/processor to see containers of recyclables that may have contaminated materials early on could result in a far better quality that eventually comes to the recycling center. Several sensor-based companies are developing addons to the sensors, which would allow a company to find out the level of contamination in the container.
Looking out even further, there are companies looking at developing or implementing a next generation of sensors that could go toward building a network of nodes that could tie into air quality sensors, closed caption television to add security to the service, advertising on panels and providing Wi-Fi capabilities. All these value-added features could enhance the sensor systems being installed.
The net result can revolutionize the way solid waste and recyclables are collected, potentially saving millions of dollars in labor, fuel and time.
Where the Industry Stands Right Now
The waste and recycling industry may be more hidebound than tech companies, but from contacts with multiple sources providing services to the industries, there is a movement toward a greater embrace of the technologies. And this move is not limited to only the private sector side, but from the public side with municipal solid waste programs embracing aspects of data and data analytics to boost participation rates in various programs.
Emily Coven, the CEO of the waste consulting firm Recyclist, says that this move is being driven by the fact that everyone knows “we need things to change, and we can’t make meaningful change if we don’t even know where we stand.”
From her company’s perspective, a constant request from public sector clients is that they are looking for better transparency and visibility into what’s happening in the field. It stands out in my memory when a potential customer came to us saying, “I have so little information, I don’t even know what universe I need to address.” Better access to data and business intelligence gives solid waste professionals the insights they need to make change, whether that change is driven by internal goals or by external sources such as legislation or even international policies such as China’s National Sword program, which has choked off the flow of less-than pristine recyclables from China.
Other groups are seeing a greater propensity for forward-thinking cities to lead the way. Many urban visionaries are motivated by the concept of the Smart City, which is driving many mid-sized and larger cities to become more “wired” to create a smoother operation, one that often needs to be done in a budget-conscious way.
Goals and Outcomes of Big Data
For municipalities, without a doubt the biggest advantage is better program outcomes. Their goals may be different from the private sector (waste diversion and higher recycling rates are more likely the key motivators for the municipal programs; while reduced costs and higher revenues for the private sector). By leveraging data and data analytics cities can obtain greater visibility, transparency and efficiencies that they will need to move forward to meet those diversion/recycling goals.
For private industry, the advantages are more varied, but largely are geared towards streamlining workflows and improving employee efficiency. To tap data, some waste haulers are using load-checking apps at processing centers that have allowed haulers to quickly and efficiently document contaminated loads entering a facility and report that back to the source immediately. One single mobile app can replace what was previously a convoluted network of clipboards, spreadsheets, emails and photos.
The push by cities to get more detailed information from their vendors, including the companies providing the waste and recycling services, is forcing significant investments by the larger companies to develop programs that can be data driven, as well as transparent. But this move also is one of survival. Despite the size of the companies, there does seem to be a strong thought that companies that do not develop any data-gathering methods will not survive, perhaps sooner than 10 years.
Waste Management is an example of a company that recognizes the importance of investing to become a more data-centric operation, even if the service runs counter to the company’s own hauling side of the business. With the introduction of its Enspire program, the company has developed a cloud-based business platform designed around helping customers track, on a global, regional or individual location, their environmental performance.
Through the program companies can track environmental performance for water, waste, recycling, carbon or organics. Another benefit of the Enspire system is that it can be modified to the individual company by allowing the user to define the metrics according to the company’s own goals.
What the program does do is the following:
- Aggregate and repackage raw data into a single useful and interactive dashboard.
- Customize the platform to include data on water, energy, waste, recycling, carbon, and more.
- View sustainability trends at an enterprise level or drill down to a single location using a variety of visualization tools.
- View sustainability trends over time so a company can make informed decisions based on visibility and transparency across your entire portfolio.
- Improve operational efficiencies by reducing the time and cost of gathering data.
A growing number of cities also are embracing the possibilities of using more data-centric information to boost their recycling efforts and become a Smart City.
Smart City: Atlanta
Atlanta is one of a growing number of cities that are embracing the Smart Cities concept by applying targeted data-accessing information to boost the city’s waste collection operations. Through the city’s Department of Public Works and its Office of Resiliency, smartphones were placed in sanitation trucks and other vehicles, which allowed the city to ensure that employees were spread eventually through the city and the most efficient routes were taken.
As the city became more comfortable with the use of the data, further moves to get granular information allowed the city to tap applications that allowed the city to track levels of contamination in the recyclables. Prior to this method, the city only had quarterly reports to find out the quality of the material being delivered. And even this approach was rudimentary at best as the city would dump recyclables on a tipping floor and determine the extent of the contamination.
In 2017, Atlanta launched a pilot program, along with the Recycling Partnership and Rubicon, to have employees inspect recycling bins along four of the city’s recycling routes. Through the program, the employees logged contamination using a smartphone app provided by Rubicon Global. The data extracted will be used to inform future recycling education campaigns.
For municipalities, a first step may be looking at the existing program to determine what areas are the most inefficient (the biggest cost sinkholes), and then find the data to improve that area.
If the data is not being captured, capture it. You will likely get more data than you need, but the costs are modest and the value of obtaining the needed information is significant.
Coven with Recyclist, says:
My advice to anyone looking to take that first step in better data management is to go around your company (or city) and ask your colleagues about what information they’re tracking. Have them open their spreadsheets for you and show their work processes.
“I always like to ask the question, ‘If you could wave a magic wand and have one set of data that would make your life easier, what would that be?’”
“You’ll learn an enormous amount from that process. Once you know what you need, that determines your strategy. There’s a good chance that if you have a problem you’re trying to solve, someone else has had that same problem too, so there may be a ready-made software solution for it, or consultants who specialize in that area. If not, you can always put out an RFP and see who responds. You can also contact software companies and consultants to ask for recommendations. For such a big industry, the solid waste industry is well-networked, so if you put feelers out for what you need, you’ll often find it.
How to Find the Right Person
While there are a host of consultants who specialize in gathering data, it is may not be important to seek out a company that has a strong background in the waste and/or recycling industry, although it is probably more beneficial, due to the nuances found in this sector. There are features/aspects of the waste industry that are unique and do not translate into other industries.
Finally, while the waste and recycling industry may be looking at ways to streamline operations and reduce costs, one strategy that should be embraced by all in the sector is creating a standardization procedure. There are many companies generating the same information, but are being stored in different formats, making it more difficult to share information.
Going forward as the waste management and recycling companies begin to implement data-based systems, the use of big data will spread to include greater use of sub-sector technology issues such as blockchain technology and the possibility of what is being termed the Internet of Things, which is the development of a network of physical devices, vehicles and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enables these things to connect, collect and exchange data. AI and the embrace of robotics, while not yet common, is starting to gain adherents and could also become a more standard tool to meet waste and recycling goals.
While data availability can improve waste/recycling operations, a key step still depends on employees and whether they “buy in” to the new technology. If employees and staff believe in the end goal, then the likelihood of accurate data and the analytics that can boost a users’ business will be seen.