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Blog September 2020 Updated July 2023

Smart cities living lab for innovative waste collection concepts

Interview Volker Fennemann, Fraunhofer Institute: “Next generation technology enables new waste management systems”

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Interview Volker Fennemann, Fraunhofer Institute: “Next-generation technology enables new waste management systems”

Digitization is key in smart city concepts. Fine-meshed digital webs connect networks like distribution hubs, logistic supply chains, traffic control systems, and waste collection. Next-generation technology such as cognitive sensors with built-in intelligence, in the near future, enable these digital braids to communicate with each other. With this, smart sensors pave the way for new innovative business models, including those for innovative waste management concepts.

The circular economy is all about keeping products and raw materials in the loop. For instance, renting baby clothes and recycle them to use as raw materials for new products. Smart city concepts also initiate completely new business models like 'light as a service' of Philips Lightning based on 'pay-per-lux'. Philips retains control over the items they produce, enabling better maintenance, reconditioning, and recovery.

Product as a service is highly differentiating from most of the current business models focussing on selling a product. After using it the waste is left both for the buyer to dispose of and the municipality responsible for the waste collection. Product as a service will changes traditional waste management systems permanently, is the firm belief of Dipl.-Ing. Volker Fennemann, Head of Department of the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics. “Waste is no longer waste but a product or raw material with an actual value for which there is also a demand.”

New business models combine packages and waste distribution

These new business models will change the existing waste collection systems. Fennemann foresees a future for new concepts based on the at-home collection of small amounts of waste. “Sensors in the bin register what kind of waste is disposed of and what the raw material is which can be collected for reuse. Due to the use of smart technology this information is automatically exchanged with the centralized data system.”

One of the other examples he mentions is combining the delivery and distribution of packages and waste like plastic or paper. “Normally citizens would bring that to a container park. Also part of the smart cities concept is the ability to search online for the party offering the best possible price and service to collect raw materials. At the moment virgin plastic is cheaper. However, that will change with the upcoming EU ban of single plastic making reused plastic more interesting as secondary raw materials.”

Data lays the ground for innovative waste collection systems

The smart city is a living lab and a game-changer, as Fennemann calls it. “The digital transformation puts data at the center of innovation-based urban development. By determining and providing data, smart cities make a valuable contribution to the creation of a circular economy on a local basis. This data touches all areas of urban life and can, for example, originate from industrial applications or from public space provided by citizens. This has laid the ground for new innovative technology to collect waste, such as a tube-based underground waste collection system in Finland."

The tube system of waste collection improves the safety and pleasantness of the residential areas and facilitates waste recycling. A major part of waste transportation becomes obsolete resulting in less traffic and emissions and improved safety of the yards. It is the cutting-edge technology behind the system collects which contributes to a smart city, Fennemann makes clear. "It is powered by the Internet of Thing - IoT - and artificial intelligence - AI - and enables to optimize operations while at the same time to reduce emissions, saving energy and meet sustainability targets."

Online waste platforms connect supply and demand

Distributed knowledge is particularly necessary for circular economy approaches in the areas of sharing and collaboration as well as repair, reuse, and refurbishing, especially for capital goods, he states.

“Through digital networking, for example, the availability of products for lending can be checked, construction plans for the creation of spare parts can be used online in the local 3D printer or maintenance requirements can be registered autonomously by a device. In the waste industry, examples are the online platforms connecting supply and demand, for instance, to hire a skip during renovations.”

Traffic, distribution, and waste information available in one system

Technologies contribute to this in more than one way, he is clarifying. “Digitisation, especially through decentralized approaches such as cognitive sensors but also new mobile phone standards (5G), technologies such as narrowband IoT and data storage capacities, allows large amounts of raw data to be captured, processed by means of suitable software and made available to the actors in a precisely tailored way.”

Fennemann: “This makes divergent data available such as container levels, information on current road works and traffic situations and particularly handy for waste companies. Data can be adapted in real-time and directly loaded into the dispatchers' system. Since available in one and the same system combined the data also automatically can generate optimum route suggestions to the driver during waste collection.”

Sensor with in-built intelligence backbone of smart city

Digitization is a key driver for the circular economy and with that for smart cities. That is certainly for Volker Fennemann. “The future belongs to cognitive sensors with in-built intelligence being the backbone a widespread and finely-branched digital network. These next-generation sensors are able to measure all the way down to a container -compared to the present sensors who only can measure the top of the waste in the container.”

These cognitive sensors can also communicate with other sensors, he explains. “For instance, the one in a package exchanging information if the content is damaged. Based on this, the shipping company can decide to send a new product even before the parcel has arrived at its final destination. At the same time, the buyer is informed what happened to the product, that a new one is on its way which will be delivered the next day.”

Waste management systems enable municipalities to work on future cities

In the next step of this ‘online platform economy’, standardized and verified information flows into autonomous data systems, Fennemann anticipates. Combining data from the logistics sector enables the coupling of reversed logistics (disposal) processes, also by other actors, according to him.

“Sensors will be commodity game changers specifically because of the intelligence behind them. By the 24/7 ongoing real-time exchange with other data in the value chain constantly smart decisions are made both in the reversed collection and supply chain and the closed-loop system processes”, he predicts.

“As a result, new economic and ecological business models for the circular economy can arise in a smart city. In that respect, waste management systems are only a part of smart cities but of the utmost importance because it enables governments and municipalities to work on the city of the future, including completely new and innovative waste management systems.”

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