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Internet of Things, Big Data and waste

By 25th November 2015 Blog, Sustainability No Comments
The Internet of things market connected smart devices tag cloud

In the last century, the Internet has probably done more to disrupt ‘business as usual’ than anything else. Another internet enabled revolution is coming.

You only have to look at how e-commerce has grown in the last 10 years to see how transformational it’s been – high street retailers, for instance, now need an online offering in order to compete for sales with Internet-only competitors like Amazon, or risk being put out of business.

Now, there’s another transformation underway: the Internet of Things (IoT).

IoT is all about connecting the physical world of ‘stuff’ to the virtual world of the Internet. And its potential is enormous.

According to Goldman Sachs, IoT will bring over 28 billion devices ‘online’ within the next decade.

And according to the global management consultancy, McKinsey, the potential economic value of the IoT could be between $4 and $11 trillion a year by 2025.

Control and understanding

IoT will enable us to control and understand things in a way that hasn’t previously been possible.

Take home heating as a simple example. It’s already possible to retrofit devices that enable you to operate your central heating remotely using an app on your smartphone or tablet. In the future, IoT will take that to another level – we’ll see systems using the GPS locator in our smartphones to check where we are, switching on the heating when we leave the office to head home from work. They’ll also monitor how we use the rooms in our homes, intelligently heating only the right spaces at the right times.

This latter element – gaining a deeper understanding by harvesting usage data – will have a massive impact on energy and resource consumption. In fact, the ‘Big Data’ potential of IoT is one day going to play a significant role in helping countries meet their environmental targets.

Developments affecting waste management

IoT and Big Data have the potential to cause fundamental shifts in the way we manage waste, particularly through better logistical planning.

Let’s start with household waste, and the debate about whether weekly or fortnightly collections are the optimum.

Now, imagine that every domestic wheelie bin in England is connected to the Internet, making it possible to harvest huge amounts of valuable data about fill rates (how often does Mrs Jones at 13 Acacia Avenue open the lid of her green waste bin in an average week?) and weights (does the residual waste bin at the Patterson’s on Manor Lane weigh about the same every week, or is there a noticeable uptick every other week when Mr Patterson’s children from his previous marriage come to stay?)

Provided that the data is mined effectively, you can start to see how it might be possible to think about streamlined routing and collection frequencies that are demand driven rather than fixed. In fact, it’s even possible that bins and collection vehicles could communicate with one another along a particular route so that decisions about which ones actually need emptying gets made on-the-go at a granular level. All of this could strip out costs and make servicing household waste cheaper for local authorities.

There’s also enormous scope for it in a business context too.

So, imagine the food manufacturer that generates a food sludge for disposal that’s stored in tanks and removed in road tankers for anaerobic digestion. IoT, and proper use of Big Data, could one day see the storage tanks, road tanker and reception facilities at the AD plant communicate with one another so that wasted journeys are avoided, maximum payloads achieved and collections and deliveries made in a way that eliminates waiting times to cut down on demurrage charges.

Then there’s the ability for the steel mill to call for scrap, or the paper mill to call for recovered cardboard when it’s actually needed, perhaps helping to smooth peaks in supply and demand, providing greater consistency and levelling prices as part of a highly integrated circular economy.

And paperwork? Well, that too could become a thing of the past.

But there’s another dimension to this that the waste industry needs to plan for: over time, as IoT is embraced by businesses in particular, it’s going to play a role in process optimisation, resource efficiency and, as a consequence, waste minimisation – meaning there will be progressively less waste to manage.

IoT isn’t some sort of Orwellian nightmare, where Big Brother watches your every move. But it could be the future of sustainable waste management, and it makes sense for waste businesses to consider how they can be part of the revolution or risk being left behind.

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