Surging population growth in cities is not only challenging city leaders to find better ways to deliver transportation, energy, public safety and other municipal services, it’s also forcing them to deal with more garbage. The good news is that smart solutions are emerging in the solid waste management arena. Technologies are coming to market that can help cities collect and process waste more efficiently and recover valuable materials from the waste steam. In this chapter we examine how smart technologies are enabling cities to manage municipal solid waste (MSW) in an efficient and sustainable manner. As in other city responsibility areas, information and communications technologies (ICT) are driving many of these new solutions, particularly in the area of garbage collection. But scaled-up applications in the realm of biological and industrial engineering are also involved.
The growth of garbage
Municipal solid waste refers to the garbage that’s familiar to most of us. It’s your everyday household trash – wrappers, food scraps, junk mail, plastic containers – minus any hazardous, toxic, electronic or medical waste.
In more developed economies, recycling, composting and energy recovery programs are already diverting significant volumes of municipal waste from landfills. Still, the numbers indicate that the overall municipal waste stream continues to grow.
In a landmark report released in 2012, the World Bank estimated that urban residents worldwide generated 1.3 billion tonnes (or metric tons) of municipal waste per year. By 2025, cities are expected to nearly double that amount, producing 2.2 billion tonnes.
Moreover, the amount of solid waste being generated is outpacing the rate of urbanization. This phenomenon is, in part, linked to the rapid growth in developing countries, where rising incomes and affluence are accelerating consumption. China, for example, surpassed the United States as the world’s largest waste generator almost a decade ago.
Why managing solid waste matters
Cities need to effectively and efficiently deal with solid waste for several reasons. Let’s take a quick look at them.
Protecting public health. First and foremost, cities manage waste to mitigate its public health impact. As a breeding ground for bacteria, insects and vermin, accumulated trash has long been linked to the spread of air- and water-borne diseases. The Industrial Revolution and mass movement of workers to cities spurred the first rigorous efforts to address and improve urban sanitation. These efforts included systematic waste collection with disposal via dedicated incineration plants and landfills.