Getting out from under the (garbage) pile

How waste technology is preventing overflow (and underflow) issues

by Dan Studer — This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of FMJ

In July 2020, garbage started piling up outside many strip malls and shopping centers that contained multiple restaurants. The restaurants were closed to dine-in traffic due to local pandemic regulations, but their take-out business was booming and suddenly there was an overflow of boxes to be recycled and mounds of trash generated from take-out orders. Even a few weeks earlier the business owners couldn’t have guessed they would need more recycling pickups, and there was no way to gauge (other than guesstimating) how to keep up with service fluctuations.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, facilities that sat empty for months were still paying to have near-empty dumpsters emptied each week. In both cases, there was a breakdown in communication with waste vendors who weren’t able to adjust service schedules to make them more efficient.

In just one example, a commercial real estate company went from a volume of 11,000 yards of waste down to 4,300 yards of waste in less than two months. After six months the volume levelled out at about 6,300 yards, but that was still far less than the 11,000 yards they’d originally contracted for.

How can facilities move quickly to make waste service efficient – especially when circumstances are uncertain? The CRE and their waste vendor turned to technology.

Getting a feel for volume

In the past, the waste industry had very few accurate methods for quantifying the amount and types of waste being generated. Manual audits were common, and even recommended, to identify efficiencies in a facility’s waste and recycling service schedule.

Manual waste audits are time intensive and require several steps. In this system, the property manager or facilities team dedicates many hours of manpower or contracts with a vendor to conduct a survey over weeks or even months. The process includes:

  • Physically monitoring where and how waste and recycling is disposed across all areas of the facility.
  • Surveys, interviews, and focus groups to discover breakdowns in the waste stream (such as identifying areas of persistent recycling contamination issues).
  • Weighing or guesstimating the weight of each type of waste produced on a daily and weekly basis.
  • Tracking waste volume over time to discover seasonal trends.
  • Identifying stopgaps or permanent solutions that will improve efficiency.
  • Creating a more cost-effective service schedule and educating occupants on new, more efficient waste processes.

Benefits of Dumpster Camera Tech

During unexpected business disruptions—whether it’s a natural disaster or a global pandemic—camera technology can remove some of the guesswork from waste volume estimates.

  1. Reduce spend by as much as 30 percent and reduce recycling contamination fees.
  2. Reduce unnecessary pickups – fewer trucks on the road means a smaller carbon footprint.
  3. Support Zero Waste goals with waste volume data.
  4. Service verification – know whether the pickup happened even when no one is on site.
  5. Reduce contamination – up to 98 percent accurate at identifying common contamination categories.

In an ideal world, there is time to fully analyze a facility’s waste stream and identify out-of-the-box waste initiatives like company composting programs or recycling challenges to improve waste disposal efficiency. However, when extraordinary business disruptions happen, this just isn’t possible.

Emerging technology

The waste vendor found a solution that would help bring costs under control. The vendor decided on Compology camera technology, because it would allow them to monitor waste volume from within the dumpsters themselves. And over time, they could build up a history of data to identify trends and contamination issues across multiple facilities.

Installing cameras in dumpsters seemed like an obvious solution. Not only does the camera monitor the level of dumpster fullness, but it can also help catch contaminants before the recycling truck arrives on scene.

Granted, it is still difficult to get someone to run out to the dumpster to remove contaminated items before the recycling is picked up, but at least the issue can be addressed. If recycling contamination fees are a pain point, camera technology makes it easier to see what type of contaminants are being thrown in the dumpster (and to identify repeat offenders). The property manager can then send out reminders to follow recycling rules.

The technology is still evolving, but for the time being, it’s a major step up from manually standing outside and guessing average waste volume over time.

When business is in flux, or extreme events are creating unknown variables, collecting waste data now may help make better service predictions in the future. For the vendor, installing cameras on all their dumpsters has created a wealth of waste data that will likely help companies adapt faster in future downturns (and to help prevent garbage pileups).

Once the cameras were installed in the dumpsters, the vendor was able to get a better sense of actual waste volume each week and adjust pickup schedules accordingly. While it is not yet an automated process, it did save the CRE from paying for nearly twice the yardage than they were actually producing.

Communication is key

Many property owners and facility managers don’t have to think about their garbage and recycling service very often. Service contracts tend to be long, and unless something drastic happens to disrupt the building, very little changes from month to month as far as waste is concerned.

However, when a disruption does hit, having good communication with a waste vendor can lead to finding mutually beneficial solutions. Many facilities can easily find themselves in the situation where either they are paying for empty dumpster pickups or they have garbage overflowing in their alleys from unanticipated waste.

Technology can’t solve everything, but it can help a facility adjust to rapid changes. In the future, the data collected through dumpster camera technology could help automate waste audits based on the size and nature of a facility. It could help facility managers automatically adjust their service schedules (and their waste budget) by predicting ebbs and flows in advance.

The tech isn’t quite there yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t get there eventually (and possibly soon). For the time being, dumpster camera technology is proving to be key in helping property owners and facility managers stay on top of fluctuating trash volumes.

About the author

Dan StuderDan Studer helps companies implement camera technology to right size their waste. With more than a decade experience with top-tier waste companies, Dan has worked with large facilities and multi-property portfolios across the country. He’s the commercial waste division manager at ZTERS Waste Solutions.

Additional Resource

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