How councils can make their environmental services operations pay their way

Written by: Steve White | Published:
Yotta software business development manager Steve White

Conservation group WWF have reported that the amount of plastic waste the country produces is set to rise by 20% by 2030.

It is a finding that underlines the importance of encouraging the public to recycle more.

At the moment, there is no set standard across local authorities when it comes to recycling. You can wander into the neighbouring district, or even just down your street, and be surprised to find that what can actually be recycled is different. With even neighbouring councils having different collection schemes this all adds to public confusion around recycling.

Certain measures in the Resources and Waste Strategy, such as mandatory food waste collections, does address this and brings greater harmonisation of collection schemes across the UK, meaning that there would be fewer approaches to recycling nationwide. Certainly, this issue needs government direction and the necessary funding in place to make sure any required changes happen.

Scoping the challenge

A recent survey commissioned by Yotta indicated that 41% of UK adults believe that there are insufficient incentives to recycle materials in their local area and nearly a third (31%) think smart schemes designed to incentivise recycling would improve the amount they recycle.

There are broadly two kinds of recycling that the UK public typically engage; firstly, recycling at home, what we effectively put in our recycling bins and boxes for collection, and, secondly, recycling on-the-go.

Card schemes, where members of the public are rewarded for their recycling efforts by receiving special ‘green’ points for use at their local leisure centre or library sites, for example, or to donate to locally nominated good causes, are one potential way of addressing the former challenge. In some cases, however, it may be unclear whether the cost of running such schemes is outweighed by the benefits of doing so.

A different approach that might offer better returns could be to use data analytics techniques to measure the amount of recyclable waste being collected on a street by street basis. This could then reveal which street within a specific ward or local area was recycling the most - by tonnage for example. The results could be published on the council website in the form of a league table, sent via email or posted on social media, thereby promoting local competition, and helping raise recycling levels overall.

It is in the latter scenario, recycling on-the-go, where incentivising the public could work most effectively and where smart technology could best be brought to bear to help that process.

More incentives

If individuals could, for example, get 10 or 20p back per item from a deposit return scheme, it might well boost overall recycling levels by making it less likely that people simply dispose of the plastic bottle they are carrying in a general bin or discarding them on the floor.

Of course, this will require those collecting from these – be they authorities or others – to implement efficient systems and processes to optimise the way waste is collected. There are a range of options.

We could see facilities for people to return items to the supermarkets where they were originally bought. Smart bins could be installed at railway stations, parks or other public areas where footfall is high. The amount of recycled materials collected in these areas is likely to vary significantly, of course. That’s where fill-level sensors, compaction technology and other IOT-based technologies could come into play to ensure that collections of recycled materials were not just scheduled on a fixed frequency basis but whenever the bins were reaching capacity.

It is important to highlight the need for low-cost sensors here though. So far, fill level sensors have tended to be used most widely on a pilot basis by councils. The costs of rolling them out more widely have generally been quite prohibitive. It would be good to see the cost of these sensors coming down. There are some indications that this is beginning to happen, but more needs to be done.

Reducing their cost would potentially allow councils to put a denser network of sensors in place and allow for multi-stream devices that do not just measure fill levels but also temperature, humidity, CO2 or the presences of a fire for example.

If the authorities have large communal or trade bins in place sensors could even identify if somebody has climbed inside it to sleep. So, the ability to install and run sensors at a low cost could enable councils to get more use out of sensor technology and attain more data to help drive improved decision-making and operations.

Looking ahead

Given the urgent need to conserve energy and ecosystems, protect the environment and reduce pollution, finding ways to incentivise recycling by the public must be a council priority.

Government policy documents like Resources and Waste Strategy are crucial in providing guidelines around the right approaches to follow but there is still work for the authorities to do to counter public confusion, drive up recycling levels and ensure local environments are better protected. In finding a solution, a combination of creative and innovative thinking and the latest connected IOT-based technology is likely to be key.

Steve White is software business development manager at Yotta

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