The End of Garbage? Join the Next Wave of Waste Management

Cities need to adopt business models that encompass a proven combination of technology, analytics and subject matter expertise to resolve one of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

The combination of surging population growth and rapid urbanization continues to place stress on a wide range of city services. In addition to pursuing innovative solutions in areas such as water, energy, transportation, public safety and healthcare, city leaders are increasingly focused on addressing challenges associated with waste management.

According to the World Bank, by 2025, the global volume of urban solid waste is projected to grow from 1.5 billion tons to 2.2 billion tons, while the annual cost to manage that waste will rise from $244 billion to $375 billion. Given the rapid rise in both volume and costs, cities need to develop novel ways of managing their waste to achieve critical financial and environmental objectives. As circular economy objectives have come to the forefront of the contemporary waste management agenda, there is an increasing global realization that everything in the waste stream is a resource.

Nevertheless, cities around the world have struggled to implement new business models that can improve recycling and landfill diversion rates while driving down costs. For example, recycling rates in the United States are stagnant, while the combination of a long-term dip in commodities prices and increased processing costs threatens to undermine the viability of municipal recycling programs.

Given the fact almost every recycling facility in the United States is currently operating at a loss, recycling providers are scaling back the provision of services and increasing costs at the expense of municipalities’ bottom line and sustainability ambitions.

In response to these realities, cities increasingly are adopting innovative models to reduce costs and drive improvements across the entire waste management value chain.

First, [some] cities are leveraging emerging Internet of Things technology from [companies like] IBM to infuse their waste management operations with intelligence. For example, cities can optimize collection routes based on waste generation patterns, create tailored marketing messages around recycling based on demographic profiles, monitor air quality and road conditions from sensors on garbage trucks, and track the composition of waste streams and diversion rates in real time. By applying waste analytics to digitize and integrate their waste supply chains—from collection to disposal and re-use—cities can derive valuable insights and visibility into operational processes in order to generate substantial benefits.

Second, cities are partnering with the private sector to contain costs by supporting recycling business models that are not dependent on the risks associated with the commodities market. While traditional recyclers make a differentiation between commodities that have a market value and those that don’t, the reality is virtually everything in the waste stream can be re-purposed into value-added products. By partnering with companies that leverage advanced sorting and manufacturing technology and IBM smarter waste analytics, cities that adopt a smarter approach to waste management can eliminate commodity-related risks while reducing costs, generating jobs and [boosting] local economic development.

In the face of substantial urban challenges, a smarter approach to waste management can help cities to not only achieve their short-term objectives, but also contribute to resolving some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Indeed, by adopting new business models that encompass a proven combination of technology, analytics and subject matter expertise, cities can be at the forefront of the world’s next green revolution.


David Post is an executive manager on IBM’s Global Smarter Cities team. He also leads IBM’s Smarter Waste Management business globally.