Circular Economy: How AI Is Helping to Reduce Landfill Waste

4 min read

A look at how one organization is bringing innovation to waste management using intelligent automation.

In the opening sequence of Pixar’s WALL-E, nearly every inch of Planet Earth is covered in garbage. The world is no longer habitable by humans, and only the robot WALL-E remains, rolling among the heaps of trash, sorting each piece even though it’s clearly too much for one little robot.

It’s estimated that the global population generates nearly 5.5 million tons of municipal waste — roughly the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza — every day. At this rate, we are quite literally burying ourselves in trash. In an ideal world, the obvious solution might be to simply stop producing so much to begin with. This is easier said than done. But circular economy models provide smart examples and accessible starting points for how we can avoid a trashy future, so to speak.

A circular economy is essentially a model of production and consumption that benefits businesses, people and the environment by getting the most use and least waste out of the stuff we use. For an example of a perfect circular economy, look to nature. A plant grows, nearby wildlife feeds on it, and both eventually die and nourish the flora and fauna that once nourished them.

Humans tend to engage in a more linear “make-take-waste” process. We make things, buy and use them, then trash them. If only things like plastic bags, diapers and old computers degraded as fast as autumn leaves and nourished the soil in the process.

Let a circular economy mindset drive innovation

Circular economy activities can yield significant advantages for business and government, such as improving the security of the raw materials supply, stimulating innovation, boosting economic growth and creating jobs.

In a recent study by the IBM Institute for Business Value, chief supply chain officers (CSCOs) identify several specific actions they plan to take over the next three years in pursuit of their circular economy goals:

  • 47% are initiating full lifecycle design of their materials and products with the intent to expand reuse of materials and components to reduce waste in the product lifecycle.
  • 44% plan to improve the energy-efficiency of their products and services.
  • 35% plan to develop new products and services based on renewable energy componentry.
  • 30% expect to engineer new zero-waste products and services. Packaging goals include reducing first-use (virgin) plastic usage (32%) and increasing the use of recyclable or biodegradable materials and packaging (30%).

To move toward circularity, organizations are automating workflows with environmental impact and innovation in mind. Waste management companies, in particular, have the opportunity to minimize landfill waste using artificial intelligence (AI) and automation technologies.

How to bring innovation to waste management — and potentially influence an entire industry

As a provider of electricity, water cycle management and heating services, and as Italy’s largest waste management and recycling company, Hera S.p.A, is on the front lines of the urgency to reduce waste and minimize environmental damage.

Where traditional recycling practices may be one arc in the cycle of reuse, Hera offers integrated solutions that help complete the circle. With plastics, for example, it not only recovers waste but also incorporates it into the production of high-quality new products that are themselves recyclable.

“Today, in our territories, most of the waste is recovered... only a small portion ends up burnt, but this is burnt in waste-to-energy plants, producing new energy.” — Andrea Bonetti, Hera’s manager of IT architecture

But the recovery process depends on quickly finding and separating reusable material from tons of refuse. It was with this process that Bonetti and her colleague, Milena Zappoli, Innovation Manager of the Environmental Services of the Hera Group, decided to explore how intelligent automation could improve efficiency and help channel more material to new use.

Evaluating the potential of AI for waste sorting

Hera personnel analyze waste manually. As trucks unload at the entrance to the plants and the trash is pushed toward conveyors, spotters watch for recoverable materials — including plastics, glass, aluminum and organic material — and help direct downstream sorting.

It’s an onerous job, especially at scale: 1,400 spotters work at 89 plants, where 6.3 million tons of waste is treated every year. And spotters faced a lot of inefficiency — when a sorting anomaly occurs during the collection phase of the waste management process, the whole plant is stopped.

Hera envisioned capturing video of incoming trash and using AI to recognize characteristics of items and materials that would qualify them for recovery and reuse. “This could have a decisive impact on the costs of recovery and disposal activities, which is the focus of the circular economy,” explains Bonetti.

The Hera and IBM Garage teams quickly recognized that the plants were not the right place to capture video. There was too much material going by too quickly. Instead, they identified a better vantage point upstream. By mounting cameras on trash trucks, they could video the smaller amounts of material falling out of bins. “It’s still an extremely rapid passage of images,” says Bonetti. “But the study of these images has allowed us to identify significant patterns for the qualitative evaluation of the waste during the collection process, not inside the plant, which could improve the time and cost of the transformation process.”

The Hera team also hopes to correlate waste-quality data with collection locations, helping the company develop targeted information campaigns to help people better differentiate between waste items.

"The experience with IBM Garage has allowed us to activate a particularly innovative solution in the field of waste collection, selection and recovery: the project is positioned along the entire operational supply chain and can be a valid support to increase efficiency, but above all it can affect the improvement of the quality of separate collection and, therefore, the maximization of recyclable waste, making full use of the efforts made by the Hera Group in the circular economy.”  — Milena Zappoli, Innovation Manager of the Environmental Services of the Hera Group

Learn more

Bring innovation to environmental stewardship and read the Hera S.p.A case study.

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