In April 2017, a landslide in Sri Lanka’s Meethotamulla turned fatal for 32 local residents. More than a thousand people lost their loved ones and properties because of the landslide. The Sri Lankan Army had to be called to mitigate the crisis. Landslides, as we knew, are natural disasters caused by tectonic forces or exorbitant rainfall. But the Meethotamulla landslide was completely a man-made disaster. It was a landslide of garbage. The wall of a land-fill collapsed on surrounding houses, suffocating people in the waste that we’d generated.
We faced similar disasters at home as well. Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill collapse, the frequent fires in Mumbai’s Deonar dumping grounds are only signalling a grave threat in future in managing our urban solid waste. The “waste bomb is ticking for India”.
With a per-capita generation of 0.5 kg of solid waste per day, Indian urban residents are piling up thousands of tonnes of waste. With the increasing penetration of the FMCG industry in rural India too, solid waste generated in India is only bound to increase. We can neither keep increasing the height of landfills nor their area in the best interests of our groundwater, soil and other natural resources. The solution is to embrace the idea of Circular Economy.
Smart waste management enables our cities to make a transition from the existing linear economy to a Circular Economy. There are many technologies and processes that constitute this “smartness”. Waste-to-Energy Conversion, Re-purposing and re-cycling solid waste are some of the smart solutions. In the spirit of “Digital India”, Smart Bins also offer a technological smart solution in waste management.
Smart Bins are IoT enabled dustbins located in cities. At a basic level, these have sensors that measure the weight of the bins in real-time and provide timely communication to responsible municipal agencies. For instance, smart cities like Jabalpur are providing RFID tags to each household and commercial establishment. Along with a central command centre, which is equipped with advanced GIS analytics, this setup has allowed for proper waste collection by the sanitation workers - thereby ensuring accountability. The community bins are also attached with sensors to intimate the municipal corporation whenever they reach 80% of the capacity.
A few Smart Bins are also compacting the waste being deposited in the community bins by increasing the capacity of bins to up to 700%. This immensely reduces the number of trips a Municipality has to undertake and thus save costs in waste collection. It increases the efficiency of the existing waste collection operations and could thus save money for the already cash-starved municipalities. Many cities like Leeds in the UK are successfully implementing this solution to manage their waste.
There are advanced sensors and technologies that can make these smart bins, Smarter. For instance, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is also helping in segregation and sorting of the deposited waste. Poor segregation of waste led to the ineffectiveness of many waste management solutions like Waste-to-Energy conversion. Ai-powered Smart Bins provide a solution in this context. These advanced smart bins are thus very useful in high-density areas like railway stations. Few of the smart bins in the market also convert the segregated wet waste into manure, which can be purposed for farming and gardening.
The above potential use-cases discussed are what offered by the current Smart Bin industry, which is majorly catering to the European market. Indian cities would require more customisations and our frugal innovations could reduce the cost of the smart bins. For instance, ‘SmartLOO’ is a public-toilet monitoring platform launched by Samagra. It collects real-time data on odour and other variables to ensure timely maintenance of toilets. Such sensors can also be used in Smart Bins to ensure that the solid waste doesn’t nauseate residents. In fact, the Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016 identified odour as a public nuisance.
The Swachh Bharat Mission Urban estimated that India produces 1.43 lakh tonnes of municipal solid waste a day. Of this only 77.6% is collected and 24.8% is processed. The rest of the waste is polluting our rivers, groundwater, air and soil.
Economics of Waste Management
It is okay to be inefficient when it does not cost much. But this inefficient waste disposal is costing us not only ecologically but also economically. Municipalities are spending immensely on waste collection on transportation. For instance, Kozhikode Municipal corporation in 2015 gave out a contract of Rupees 1600 per tonne of municipal waste transported. Kozhikode generates 380 tonnes of municipal waste per day and this would cost the municipality more than 60 Lakh Rupees a day considering 100% waste collection. The costs involved are higher for other cities like Delhi, Bengaluru etc., which generate thousands of tonnes of municipal waste per day. As a result, our cash-starved municipalities are unable to increase the quality of urban life.
Our low hanging fruit in addressing this colossal waste of money is segregation of waste. 50% of municipal waste is organic and biodegradable. If municipalities can install smart community bins and use the ICT technologies to ensure segregation of waste, there could be a 50% reduction in the costs of waste collection. We can have more parks and other urban amenities with that money!
As discussed above, the Smart Bins, through route optimisation, compacting the waste etc., aids in increasing the efficiency of waste collection and saves money in operations. The segregated solid waste can also be re-purposed by the municipalities and entrepreneurs bringing in more money and jobs.
Smart bins don’t stop just at better waste management. Not only the waste collected, but the data collected by these smart bins can also be repurposed into multiple uses. Leeds City Council used this data to understand mobility patterns in the city so as to plan their lock-downs during the COVID-19 pandemic. From research to policy-making, this data is a new gold mine!
To summarise, Smart Bins would provide the following benefits to Indian cities:
Smart Bins benefit the environment by facilitating the timely collection of Urban waste and ensuring accountability at different levels of waste treatment.
Smart bins help municipal corporations financially in the long-term by increasing the efficiency of sanitation operations.
They increase the Ease of Living in Indian cities by ensuring quick grievance redressal of households and organisations.
Finally, the urban waste, which is currently a visual eyesore of our cities, can be repurposed and recycled, transforming our linear economies into circular economies.
Smart Bins have many more uses in data-driven urban planning, research etc.
Hence, considering the life-time costs, the smart bins are a much-needed investment for our cities to become circular economies and improve the quality of life in urban India.
The landfill of Meethotamulla is not too far for us to learn from. The height of our landfills is increasing just at the pace of our urban complexes. They are sprawling into the pristine rural and ecologically sensitive parts of India. It’s time to be smart and defuse the waste bomb. It’s time to become circular and the Smart Bins is one of the solutions in becoming a Circular Economy.
About the Author
Sai (LinkedIn) is a Research Assistant the Indian School of Business (ISB) and is passionate about Public Policy and Development sector. He has had previous experience in Urban Policy and Data Journalism.