While important, recycling is old news. Having a standard recycling program is table stakes for most local governments these days. But that doesn’t mean the waste management field is stale — far from it. Where the innovation is happening is in how recycling is being done, and other initiatives to enhance communities’ waste management systems.
These efforts run the gamut from technology-driven solutions, like mobile apps and smart bins, to old-school report cards and games with prizes. In one case, the city even created a public sh** list broadcasting dumping violators. Sometimes the same approach is being trialed on different sides of the world. Other times, cities are trying similar tactics — but having very different outcomes.
We’ve sorted through waste management projects from around the world and identified 9 trending or outside-the-box approaches to keeping things clean.
Let’s dumpster-dive in for some trash talk.
Smart bins make disposal more efficient
One common initiative around the globe is the adoption of “smart bins” for trash and recycling. These rely on sensors to respond to the amount of waste in a bin, and provide valuable data to the city about waste volume and service needs.
Cities experimenting with smart bins include Stonnington, VIC, which is using solar power to compact waste in smart bins once it reaches a certain volume. When the bins can’t compact any more and need to be serviced, they send a message to city workers, creating a more efficient, need-based waste management service. The city installed these bins in high-traffic areas as part of a pilot, and will use the learnings to inform future recycling initiatives. Similar efforts are underway in Darlington Borough Council, GB and Tea Tree Gully, SA (where bins were colorfully decorated to make them more eye-catching for passersby).
These smart compactor bins reduce the physical volume of waste — compressing the trash allows the bins to hold seven to eight times the amount of waste in a normal bin.
Overall, smart bins create significant efficiencies for city sanitation departments, who are notified when a bin is full or needs service. Workers now spend less time checking on or dumping half-full bins, and can spend that time on other maintenance work.
Underground garbage is a toss up
Raleigh, NC piloted a similar approach in 2019, using large underground containers from Molok to store trash and recycling. The program was intended to eliminate the carts and dumpsters that caused odors and blocked walkways, however about two months after its introduction, the city scrapped the initiative. While city officials credited the program with adding efficiencies from a waste management perspective, the response among local business owners and residents wasn’t supportive, as there were concerns about vermin, smell, and public health. The city may relocate the containers elsewhere but hasn’t solidified plans.
One city’s success doesn’t always translate to another. By piloting initiatives, getting community input, and rolling out projects strategically rather than all at once, cities can test into an approach that works best for their local needs.
Tackling single-use recycling
Mobile apps make citizens more accountable
A number of localities have ambitious waste reduction and recycling goals. But these only work if citizens know how to participate correctly. A handful of cities, towns, and counties have introduced mobile apps to engage with and educate residents on local recycling programs.
One big point of confusion for many residents is which products can be recycled — and what bin each item belongs in. To address this, Hobsons Bay, VIC, introduced the Recycling 2.0 app. Residents can type a household object and the app will tell them which of the four available bins it belongs in. It’ll also inform them what waste pickup schedule they should follow, based on their home address. Norfolk County, ON, rolled out a similar app, which also allows the county to communicate any service changes with residents. The county notes that using the app (which is free to download and didn’t cost taxpayers any money to develop) saves advertising money, because it allows county officials to communicate directly with residents instead.
By putting waste management info into a format residents are used to, like a mobile app, local governments are setting their systems up for better participation, which makes them more efficient and more effective overall.
Recycling gets gamified
Apps aren’t the only tool local governments are using to get their citizens to recycle correctly. Around Vancouver, BC, communities are gamifying the practice. West Vancouver and North Vancouver partnered with ReCollect, a recycling technology company, to introduce Waste Evaders (in West Vancouver) and CitySort (in North Vancouver). The games ask players to identify which bin various objects belong in — from frozen food containers to device cables. After each level, the player gets to design features within a digital city.
No one said waste can’t be fun. These games take community engagement a step farther by making the concept of recycling enjoyable, and incentivising residents to participate.
A low-tech solution with big impact
Not every waste management solution needs to be technology-driven. In Regina, SK, stickers do the trick! The city’s CartSmart pilot inspected 2,000 households’ recycling bins and added an “Oops” sticker if items were incorrectly placed in the cart. If everything looked good, the recyclers received a “Good job” sticker. The 2,000 households started off at a 72 percent “Oops” rate, but upon the next round of inspections, 36% of carts had improved.
The results of these programs show that sometimes the simple solution is the strongest one.
Public shaming gets the job done
Baltimore, MD knows that sometimes, all it takes is a little peer pressure to change behavior. As part of Mayor Bernard C. Young’s “Clean It Up” campaign, the city revealed ten worst offenders when it came to illegal dumping and trash violations. The information is posted and updated publicly on Baltimore’s new CleanStat dashboard, and includes the violator’s name or business, number of citations, date of most recent citation, and amount paid in fines. Residents can report violations to the city to help to keep their neighbors and local businesses accountable.
Transparency is a buzzword among local governments these days. Baltimore has applied the concept beyond the workings of local government and public servants to discourage bad behavior by private citizens too.
Feeding the community to stop food waste
Since the project’s inception in 2018, over 14,500 kg of food have been collected and redistributed — instead of ending up in the trash. At the same time, thousands of residents have saved money on food expenses by utilizing the fridges.
Robots step up to deal with dangerous waste
While many of these efforts focus on the citizen-facing end of waste management, local governments are also making improvements in the safety and efficiency of those who manage the waste.
Every year in Austin, TX, the city collects more than 500 tons of mixed waste — trash and organic debris like trees and sediment — from waterways. Some of these items can be recycled, but they’re too dangerous to be sorted by humans so they end up in landfills. This is a major source of greenhouse gas. To help cut down on emissions, Austin partnered with ZenRobotics to use robots to sort debris and divert reusable items from the landfill.
There’s no one-size fits all approach to improving a city’s waste management system.
As it often is with innovation, the first step is to identify and understand the problem. Each locality will likely face a different challenge, with different root causes. For example, is the problem that people don’t have an easy way to discard trash and recycling, or is it that they don't know how?
Once the problem is clear, cities, towns and counties should look at what solutions have worked — and not worked — for other communities, and decide what to try in their own town.