Waste management provides an economic challenge for every town and city in the US. And around the world, for that matter.

At the end of the last decade, 82.4% of the US population lived in urban areas. That figure is expected to rise to an estimated 90% by 2050. This means that unless the government can tackle waste management now, the challenges will continue to place growing pressure on communities and the places they live.

So why is effective waste management important? Here are some of the benefits.

In 2018, the proper recycling, composting and landfilling of waste saved over 193 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. While this shows how effective the industry can be when it works together to reach a shared goal, the fact that waste management contributes to five percent of all global emissions shows there is more work to do.

In this blog, we’ll look at some of the biggest challenges facing waste management, like the financial cost and how labor-intensive the process is. We’ll then explore some solutions that industry professionals can use to make waste management more efficient and effective, at scale. Using case studies, we’ll share the stories of some organizations in North America that are already applying these solutions to solve their most pressing problems

What are the biggest challenges in waste management?

Time and Labor Efficiency

As a labor-intensive and time-pressured operation, a significant risk to waste management is that any delays in collecting, processing and sorting can have negative implications on the rest of the process.

Governments often experience delays because of the high volume of inquiries concerning missed pick-ups, sorting household waste and disposing of hazardous materials. It’s important to ensure that all members of the public are responded to quickly, but this can create bottlenecks in the number of high priority tasks when done inefficiently.

Let’s use New York City as an example to highlight how important time efficiency is. The City recently announced plans to reduce the amount of time that residents and businesses can leave trash on the sidewalk before pick-up. The plan has been introduced to curb pest infestations, which have skyrocketed in recent months. However, if the public has less time to leave their waste in a pick-up spot, will busy New Yorkers be able to correctly sort and dispose of waste in a shorter period of time, without further advice and interaction from their waste management team?

The Financial Cost Of Waste Management

Waste management is an expensive operation. In fact, it’s reported that waste management averages 20% of a city’s budget annually. The cost burden grows for city governments with smaller budgets, which often need to cover roughly 50% of the expenditures to improve waste infrastructure and systems.

And in high-income countries such as the US, operating costs for the collection, transportation and disposal of waste often exceed $100 per ton. In Los Angeles, which generates 6,650 tons of waste daily, it’s costing the City $665,000 every day. By 2030, the World Bank projects that North America will generate 342 million metric tons of waste, meaning the total cost to US cities of managing waste could rise to over $34 billion USD by 2030.

The financial cost of poor waste management is significantly higher than proper waste management. If communities don’t effectively manage their waste, there are hidden costs involved such as environmental damage, healthcare and lost productivity. In The Global Waste Management Outlook, the author estimates that the economic costs to society of poor waste management are in fact five to ten times greater than the financial costs of proper waste management.

For the industry, the issue to overcome is how to become more cost effective when waste generation, and therefore the cost of waste management, is likely to increase.

Total Waste Generation

In 2018, municipal solid waste generation in the USA, defined as ‘various items consumers throw away after they are used’, totaled 292.4 million tons. Based on The World Bank’s forecast for the growth in municipal solid waste by 2030, this is a rapid increase of 50 million in just over a decade, driven by the growing population and the societal trend towards urbanization.

Of the total waste generated in 2018, over 50% was sent to the landfill. This equates to 146 million metric tons. And to reiterate the impact that waste management has on the environment, solid waste landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the US.

The challenge is how to cope with the rising levels of municipal solid waste. How will cities and towns collect, sort, and correctly dispose of solid waste in the future, as the volume of waste generation continues to grow?

Waste management solutions

Where there are challenges that face waste management, there is opportunity. Having looked at some of the biggest problems that the industry is experiencing, it’s time to explore some solutions.

Community Engagement

Waste management is everyone’s responsibility.

The success of waste management processes relies on cooperation between the industry and members of the public. Everyone in the community can make a small difference by disposing of household waste correctly. Collectively this will make a huge positive impact on how the industry operates and succeeds.

But how can government officials drive this cooperation? Well, by successfully deploying engagement tactics that get their communities involved in waste management, cities can start to co-create solutions with their residents. Many cities and public sector bodies regularly publish waste management reports or communicate via online media. But these methods are often inaccessible and reach only a small proportion of the community.

The solution is to engage people in accessible places, where you can share information, updates or questions about waste management and get feedback in return. If waste management professionals can be more proactive and targeted in their communication, they can use these tactics to educate people on correct waste disposal and share details on pick-up times and schedules.

Integrating Technology

Technology has impacted near enough every industry out there and waste management is no different.

How can technology help?

  • Automation – Some cities are using solutions like Hello Lamp Post to automate the time-consuming process of staff responding to public queries and collecting citizen feedback

    Real-time geolocation data – Using people’s locations to share up-to-date, relevant information about waste collection, local waste disposal sites and updates to waste-related laws

  • Maximize inclusivity – People use cellphones for everyday tasks all the time. You can reach more people and a more diverse population by going above and beyond traditional communication channels like in-person meetings

Understanding People’s Waste Management Behaviors

The more you can understand what the public believes about waste management and how this causes them to behave, the better equipped you are to change their behavior.

You can achieve this by asking questions you need to know the answers to. Instead of making assumptions, ask the right questions and gain insight into things like:

  • Does your community know how to recycle household items correctly?
  • Are your city’s residents informed about their waste pick-up schedule?
  • Do they know how to report problems?
  • How would they share feedback with their representatives?

Having an understanding of these sorts of questions will help you identify the key areas for investment and improvement, and therefore inform your decision-making.

Tools like Hello Lamp Post are helping cities, counties, and public sector organizations all over the world uncover public opinions, thoughts, and insights that they otherwise would not have been able to gather.

Case studies

City of Scottsdale, Arizona

Scottsdale is an innovative city with one eye always on the future. The City is looking to scale its use of technology to solve waste management challenges within its community.

Hello Lamp Post has recently deployed in Scottsdale to help the City educate and inform residents about solid waste management via interactive trash cans. Across multiple locations, the public’s residential trash cans are sharing information about pick-up schedules and answering questions about recycling. This makes responses available instantly, all using geolocation data to provide the most relevant information.

Scottsdale staff are already seeing the impact of the interactive trash cans. The deployment is helping staff spend less time responding to public queries and the public have an accessible way of asking waste management questions.

University of British Columbia (UBC)

Universities and colleges need to tackle their waste management issues just as much as cities and government. In 2020, UBC generated 4,635 tons of waste from operational activities at its Vancouver campus. With waste management costing over $100 per ton, this is costing UBC at least $4.6 million dollars per year.

Hello Lamp Post deployed at the University of British Columbia to reduce waste generation on campus and educate students and staff about proper waste management. The technology is helping UBC overcome its waste management challenges by:

  • Answering FAQs about which items can and can’t be recycled at recycling stations and waste points on campus
  • Asking campus users to take part in the university’s efforts to reach zero-waste
  • Gathering suggestions for how to make campus cleaner and more sustainable

Since the start of the deployment, UBC has been able to gather useful insight from its students, staff and campus community. For example, 81% of users of the deployment said that they wanted to improve their waste sorting habits. All these insights are helping them make smarter waste management decisions.

It’s going to take a joint effort to overcome the biggest waste management challenges. By automating time-consuming tasks, using technology to make operations more efficient, and educating communities, it’s possible to achieve your waste management goals.

Hello Lamp Post is helping cities apply solutions to a range of issues, whether it’s helping to report incidents of illegal dumping or telling the public how to correctly dispose of waste. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response from the public, who are willing and ready to help tackle these challenges.

If you’re interested in discovering more about Hello Lamp Post and how we can help you with your waste management, please reach out to our US team via our contact form.