Smart City Trash Cans Are Already Here. And They Do Things You'd Never Imagine

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July 5, 2019

One man's trash is another's treasure trove of data. That's the premise behind a slew of companies which propose that by live-tracking just how much trash is inside our city trash cans, these long-detested bins can become much more than waystations for garbage on its way to the landfill.

These firms wager that public bins can serve as highly-efficient, environmentally-friendly, networked devices for our future smart cities, producing data on trash that has never before been available.

"Here's an industry that, for the last hundred years, hasn't really fundamentally changed. Maybe the vehicles have changed, but we really haven't done anything fundamentally different," explains Travis Sales, the director of North American sales at Nordsense, a smart waste collection firm based in Copenhagen.

Traditionally, trash is picked up on a regular schedule, with sanitation workers interrupting their routine to address complaints about overflow from city residents. But Nordsense, and competitors like South Korea-based Ecube Labs and Massachusetts-based Bigbelly, argue that by placing sensors inside trash cans, cities can transform waste management, an industry that's estimated to be worth $435 billion within the next four years.

These startups' primary innovation is optimization, using sensors — or bins installed with sensors, depending on the company — that measure just how much trash is sitting in a can. Nordsense, for instance, uses laser beams that scan throughout a bin, mapping its capacity over a sixteen-point grid and building a topology of what's inside. Sales explains that the value is knowing a bin is going to overflow, and being able to empty it preemptively.

Data from each of these bins then feeds into one live platform, allowing cities to visualize the fullness of every trash bin simultaneously and deploy sanitation workers just when they're needed. That data means sanitation departments can cut down on traffic congestion caused by stalled garbage trucks and inefficient, fuel-guzzling routes that only worsen air pollution.

Several of these companies even use artificial intelligence to predict incoming trash before it arrives at the bin. Ecube Labs uses an app to direct truck drivers onto the most optimal routes, sending them between trash bins, much like an UberPool ride picks up rider after rider. The company says that its clients on average see a 63 to 78 percent increase in efficiency, with sanitation workers emptying trash cans when they're nearly full, but not overflowing.

San Francisco, which installed 48 Nordsense sensors into city trash cans, was able to reduce complaints of overflowing bins by 66 percent, according to the company. Now the city plans to install 1,000 more sensors. Similarly, Bigbelly found that when working with the Times Square Alliance in New York, the neighborhood was able to incorporate two more streams of refuse — adding both paper recycling and cans and bottle recycling — while reducing collections on those busy streets from three to two times a day.

Another optimizing trick is building solar-powered compactors inside the garbage bins. Bigbelly, for instance, says one of its stations can hold five times more trash than a typical can. "It's advantageous to compress it because then you don't have to pick it up as often," said James Noh, a development strategy director at Ecube Labs. "The majority of public trash would be McDonalds, pizza boxes, plastic cups, paper cups. Their things take up a lot of volume but don't actually weigh that much." (In 2017, Bigbelly filed a complaint against Ecube Labs for violating patents related to its solar compactors, which the two companies ultimately settled last year.)

While these benefits have attracted customers around the world — Bigbelly alone boasts clients in more than 50 countries — the technology involved might also raise objections from privacy and civil liberties advocates already concerned with how law enforcement could use the data these bins might collect.

"All of these smart city technologies have the effect — and really the intent — of collecting more and more information about what ordinary people are doing in their everyday lives," says Lee Tien, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

He notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Americans don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy for trash left for public collection, though states are free to add further protections.

Tien warns that a lot could be learned about a person, or a neighborhood, from the trash. He cautions that just because more detailed information isn't being collected now, it doesn't mean that it couldn't be collected in the future.

However, ACLU privacy policy analyst Jay Stanley said he could not see any immediate civil rights concerns that could be raised by smart city trash cans.

Data collected from these bins has already been used to crack down on illegal dumping. Nordsense uses an accelerometer packed within the sensor that can track the orientation of the can, which could signal that a can is being vandalized. A temperature reader, which is used in part to detect lit cigarettes, could also reveal if a trash can is being set on fire.

EcubeLabs, meanwhile, has begun to sell bins with attached video displays and also offers bomb-resistant upgrades for the containers that can cost as much as 15 to 300 percent more than the regular device, a feature that Ecube Labs says interests military bases.

That these cans are all connected provides another security benefit: remote-locking that can foil terrorist attacks. "We've got power down there, we've got a CPU, it's connected to the cloud via the telecoms link in no time. What we have built into the system is kind of like a house-alarm system," explains Brian Phillips, the president and CEO of Bigbelly.

For instance, before a parade or a road closure during a presidential visit, police can have the Bigbelly bins searched, emptied, and covered with a protective plate that warns a passerby that it's out-of-service. If the Bigbelly station's sensor does capture that someone is attempting to put something in the locked bin, officials are automatically notified.

Though less secure, Bigbelly also offers another option that allows a public sanitation department to remotely lock any and all of the bins through a given area. The company says this feature has become more popular as a tool to close trash cans to the public before they overflow.

Still, despite all these high-tech features, Phillips says the reason many cities are likely drawn to the high-tech trash cans is that people don't like looking at garbage.

"The number one reason we get installed is not because it provides an operational efficiency at reducing collections. It's because it beautifies a city," he explains. "Seagulls can't get it, rats can't get it. Wind can't blow it out."

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