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Blog February 2022

A Digital Journey to Zero-Waste

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Evan Schwartz Chief Enterprise Architect, AMCS Global

A Digital Journey to Zero-Waste

Achieving zero waste brings higher profit margins and cost savings, as well as making your recycling and waste business more environmentally friendly .

As a technologist, I realize that there are opportunities where technology can help propel the journey to zero-waste.

For many companies, having a zero-waste goal may not be practical in the near-term, but identifying technological solutions that can help now brings about a more successful business.

Route optimization software from us at AMCS, has shown to many recycling and waste companies the efficiencies that can be made from technology. This leads to happier customers, reduced fuel use, ability to service more customers using the same resources, and ultimately better margins.

But technology can also reduce dependency on paper, electronics, headcount, brick-and-mortar facilities, and minimize contamination. Individually, these actions represent a smaller footprint, but compounded daily create a greater whole that makes a huge difference to the cost of running your operations.

In 2018, the United States generated approximately 292.4 million tons (US short tons) or 4.9 pounds per person per day (EPA, 2018) of municipal solid waste (MSW).

By minimizing this waste generation, collecting what needs to be recycled more efficiently, and creating higher quality materials, we can end a reliance on landfill.

According to the EPA, 146 million tons (approximately 50%) of the MSW collected in the United States went to landfills in 2018. Of course, we are also sending huge volumes of waste to landfills from commercial sources too.

By employing a zero-waste strategy, it is possible to contribute to reducing our reliance on landfill, while creating better-run companies.

Automation

By automating labor-intensive processes, it is possible to reduce headcount within your company making it more efficient – and that generates less waste.

The average office employee generates a lot of waste at work. If they’re not remote, they drive to work consuming fuel and producing emissions. They likely sit at a desk, print paperwork, consume electricity, and create waste from coffees, lunch and snacking at their desks. Of course, it also costs because you have to pay them.

Automation enables you to reduce headcount, by making your everyday workflows more efficient. Alternatively, your teams can be re-deployed for activities where the human touch is crucial in driving sales and good customer service. Therefore, digitalization should be one of your highest priority target areas. Leveraging today's Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, robotics, digitizing manual data entry, and streamlining workflows all drive down the need for wasted use of human resources.

AMCS are well versed in this activity for your recycling and waste operations, while other technology providers help to automate processes in finance, HR, marketing and sales.

Work with your technology partners across your organization and ask them to do a process evaluation. Ask them directly if they have any solutions that can help automate your processes and help you become more operationally efficient.

At AMCS, we are happy to look at how the services we can provide can help you with this goal.

Contamination

A circular economy approach should be your target when it’s unavoidable to create waste. Here you're looking for digital tools to enable a circular economy, and one of the most significant productivity killers to recycling is contamination.

The best means to attack a contamination problem so far has been through education. For years, pulp and paper companies have combatted quality issues with raw materials by educating their suppliers through a rigorous grading system for example.

Education still has its part, and technology allows us to provide digital evidence of contamination levels. Working with your suppliers, or within your own business, to evaluate the data enables you to reduce contamination levels.

Having a reliable tool to track contamination by customer, area, and region provides critical intelligence showing your teams where to target an education campaign. Viewing a heatmap overlayed onto a route or region you service allows you to address contamination issues strategically and efficiently. You don't want to begin an enterprise-wide education program when most of your problem is a small section of downtown. Reliably tracking this information also allows you to take punitive measures, where necessary, for repeat offenders or adjust pricing by zone for habitually bad areas.

AI systems are now capable of detecting contamination with properly mounted cameras providing higher quality material through better sorting, as well as useful data on types of contamination. Robots are sorting single-stream lines as efficiently, if not more than a human sorter today and robots can work 24-7-365 shifts.

The ability to process images near instantly in the cloud means you can deploy an army of eyes watching debris as it enters the hopper catching 70-90% of the contamination on the way into the truck or on the conveyors at the sorting facility. This information contains the type of contamination, the severity level when it occurred, and where it happened—all the information you need to address contamination issues within your area of operations efficiently.

Detecting contamination during the collection process and following up with education before punitive measures gives you the evidence to resolve contamination problems.

Replacing paper with digital resources

Digitalizing your processes can reduce your use of paper, while also enabling real-time update of data on your systems. By sending an email receipt, rather than printing one, you're digitizing your receipt system.

But you are also reducing the amount of interaction needed to complete a workflow through automation. Beyond being efficient, if a task doesn't require interaction, it doesn't need a user interface; therefore, it likely doesn't need the machine necessary to display that interface, or it may not need the person usually required for the interaction.

As an example, one of your trucks inbounds at the transfer station and its arrival was likely scheduled or predictable. The system on hand knows everything about this vehicle and its driver already. With cell phone in hand, the driver "checks in," grabs his tare-weight, which causes the gate arm to raise and allow entry. The driver goes to the loading bay and fills up on waste that needs to be transferred to be recycled, for energy-from-waste or landfill. Upon exit, the driver comes to rest on the scale, uses their cell phone to exit the transfer station, and again the gate arm raises to let them exit. In this scenario, there are no printed tickets. All ticket data is electronic and can be emailed, texted, or stored for reporting. The process is very fast, allowing more loads to process each day with the same number of vehicles. Thus, more efficient use of equipment.

Where else could you use automation and digitalization to reduce a dependency upon paper, equipment, and people? An obvious area to investigate is a customer portal that reduces the need for customer service, payment processing, or inquiries as provided by AMCS.

Brick-and-Mortar

If the last couple of years has taught us anything, it is we must be prepared to work remotely. Whether remote working is suitable for your business depends on many factors, but office-based employees are used to remote working. This brings benefits such as ensuring connectivity if the office is unavailable for non-Covid related events such as maintenance, blackouts or in case of emergencies.

Today's technology is highly available and connected. Remote workers bring with them a significantly reduced footprint of waste at work. Reducing electricity, office supplies, and typical waste-producing resources required to run a brick-and-mortar facility could be a practical bottom-line benefit and reduce overall environmental impact for many companies. I would classify this one as experimental as many companies are still learning to cope with remote workers.

But, ensuring that your primary ERP software solutions, such as from AMCS, are cloud-ready and accessible anywhere, anytime, and on any device provides a level of agility critical to saving many businesses during the pandemic. Having remote workers that are productive from anywhere in the nation dramatically increases your available workforce options, allowing for more competitive hiring practices. While the zero-waste savings are not earth-shattering here, it's still an excellent tactic to include in your zero-waste strategy.

Indeed, even where people return to offices, they have often gotten used to paperless processes, meaning less print waste and confidential shredding.

Conclusions

We've looked at strategies for waste avoidance and an efficient circular economy through targeted actions. All these techniques leverage digitalization, process automation, interoperability between systems, cloud accessibility, and the agility to flex with you as the world changes around you.

Efficient businesses have leaders that take the time to critically look at how their business runs and why it's dependent upon things like paper, machines, and people. They look for enterprise solutions that provide digital enablers to a circular economy and ensure they are not land-locked into a brick-and-mortar existence.

The lesson for recycling and waste management companies is for you to challenge your current processes and ask, can I automate this, do I need this piece of paper, how do I get rid of this equipment, can I use this person for something more productive?

As shown by the EPA data, we create a lot of waste in the United States. By reducing that waste, we help our environment. But those businesses that aim towards a zero-waste operation through digitalization and automation, also find they have happier customers, operate more efficiently and benefit from higher profit margins.

Learn more about our digital solutions here.

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