The first step is to stop thinking about garbage as “garbage.”
By considering things like coffee grounds, plastic bags, glass bottles and packaging as resources, rather than waste, cities can not only reduce the amount of trash they send to landfill but can also cut costs, energy use and carbon emissions.
“The demand for recovered and recycled materials is large, worldwide, and growing,” says Heather Achilles, an engineer with IBM Research. “Because of the high value of recycled materials, we’re seeing a shift away from ‘waste management’ and toward ‘resource management’ as an emerging industry.”
Better information about waste is also helping to drive that shift. By analyzing, for example, data about what types and amounts of waste come from different locations, recycling operators can optimize collection times, truck routes and other services to help the whole process run as efficiently as possible.
Recology, a resource recovery company in San Francisco, is using those kinds of analytics to help the city reach its goal of zero waste by 2020. It’s begun using IBM’s Smarter Computing strategies to manage and mine large sets of data about San Francisco’s waste stream to optimize its services.
Recognized as the greenest city in North America, the City by the Bay already diverts 78 percent of its waste from landfill, the highest in the US.
By analyzing data about San Francisco’s waste, Recology has been able to continue chipping away at its customers’ garbage footprint. Since 2000, the amount of trash they’ve sent to landfill has dropped 49.7 percent, from 730,000 tons to 367,300 tons in 2011. The program has also recycled 1.2 million tons of paper (enough to save 20 million trees), 174,000 tons of glass and 135,000 tons of metal, which is equivalent to saving 19 million gallons of oil.
In addition, a curbside compost collection program has diverted 1.1 million tons of food and plants from landfill, turning it into nutrient-rich compost for local farms and vineyards.
“Our success stems from a strong partnership with our diverse communities and our commitment to making recycling easy and convenient for everyone,” says San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.