Monday, October 24, 2011

Smart Bins for Sustainable Garbage Collection

Greetings from the Australian National University where Mr James Poss, from Big Belly Solar talked on "Sustainable waste collection - an entrepreneurial perspective". The company's first product was a solar powered intelligent garbage bin. These units compact the garbage to reduce the volume and so extend the time until it needs emptying. The bin also reports how full it is by a wireless network, so that collection can be better scheduled.

Mr. Poss described how he started with a functional, but bulky unit and refined the design through several versions. As a business, the main task is to educate the local government officials about the whole of life cost of a bin. While an ordinary "dumb" bin is much cheaper than a smart one, the cost of sending a truck with staff out to empty a bin which is not full is expensive.

This is an interesting example of ICT Sustainability (which I teach). The talk was facilitated by the US Embassy, Canberra.

What occurred to me was that it was likely that garbage accumulation at bins is likely to follow a weekly and seasonal pattern. As a result, many of the benefits of the smart bin system could be obtained with a dumb bin and smart garbage truck. If the truck can measure how full each bin is, this can be predicted when they will need emptying. It would be much cheaper to equip the small number of trucks with sensors than all the bins.

Mr. Poss also pointed out that advertising on the bins would pay for the cost of the service (and the bigger bins are more acceptable to the public as they are "solar powered"). It occurred to me that as then smart bins are powered, the advertising could be lit with LEDs, increasing the advertisement retinue. The bins would also provide some footpath lighting, thus making them more acceptable to the public.

Mr. Poss also said that larger commercial bins can be made smart. This could be attractive as an after-market device for clients of election services, who would then not have to worry about remembering to request a collection.

Mr. Poss suggested that there was a need for research on solar cells which work in low light conditions. While solar cells for power generation are placed in full sunlight, those for applications such as bins and parking meters need to be located in less optimal positions.

Secure Smart Bins

At question time I suggested that there could be a market for a security bin, which required the user to identify themselves before use. In some locations bins have been removed due to the risk of an explosive device being placed in them (London has some special (expensive) bomb proof bins). A bin which required the user to identify themselves would make planting a bomb anonymously much more difficult. This would work particularly well on a school, business, government or industrious campus, where personnel are already issued with identity cards.

An example of where ID security is already used for public deposits, are the After Hours Returns Chutes for the Leichhardt Library in Sydney. To deter rubbish being paled in the book slot, the borrower is required to use either their library card or a book bar-code to unlock the chute.

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