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Garbage Tech: New Approaches to an Age-Old Civic Problem


Trash is a fact of life, but due to growing global populations, the amount of waste that humans produce is set to triple by 2100, increasing both environmental pressures and government costs, according to the World Bank.

The issues of collecting, sorting, storing, and safely destroying trash have fallen to cities since the beginning of civilization — the first landfill was established in Crete in 3000 B.C. Today, the pace of waste production is outstripping landfill capacity, and increases in new kinds of waste mean an increased need for new strategies to manage it. Innovators and cities are combining efforts to re-use, recycle, and reduce trash in new ways.

Re-using All Kinds of Trash

Since the development of new technology happens so quickly, devices can be obsolete within a few years, leading to a new kind of waste dubbed “smart garbage” by New York Times columnist Jenna Wortham. When left in landfills, laptops, cell phones, and other electronic devices can leak dangerous chemicals.

Wortham hypothesizes that the expansion of hardware — like Fitbits and other wearables — will lead to new ways to address waste. She predicts a secondary economy of small businesses that fix damaged devices or trade-in programs such as Gazelle.

Food waste accounts for about one-fifth of what goes into municipal landfills. However, food waste — especially if it comes from grocery stores — can be saved for human consumption. For example, the former CEO of Trader Joe’s recently opened an new kind of grocery store in Boston called Daily Table that sells surplus or near-sell-by-date groceries at a discounted price. In Ireland, grocery chain Sainsbury is turning its expired food into pet and animal food in a move to eliminate food waste from landfills.

Startups are also joining the fight against food waste. For example, California-based Imperfect Produce connects consumers with fruits and vegetables that are perfectly edible but do not fit grocery stores’ cosmetic standards. Customers benefit from lower prices while keeping food out of landfills.

Tech for Recycling

Automation. Americans are not very skilled at recycling or composting, The Atlantic reports. By some estimates, up to three-quarters of material in U.S. landfills could have been recycled. Bryan Staley of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation predicts that single-stream recycling will soon use technology akin to facial recognition software that could further automate sorting.

High-tech Processes. New technology in recycling is cutting down on the amount of water and energy used to process plastic. Mexican startup Ak Inovex has developed a system to recycle plastic with no water and no excessive temperatures through instead using specially textured crushing walls to shape plastics into recyclable pellets.

Innovative “Trash Cities”

One way to recycle a city’s trash is to build it back into the city. An idea emerging from the design non-profit Terreform ONE is to create building blocks from waste to be integrated into city forms.

In the desert landscape outside of Taos, New Mexico, Michael Reynolds has been building off-grid homes from recycled materials for the last 30 years; he calls them “Earthships.” With walls made of tires and bottles, the homes run on solar and are designed to catch rainwater.

Incentivizing Waste Reduction With Tech

According to WasteZero, trash costs the U.S. economy $384 billion each year, $200 billion in expenses that could be avoided by cutting waste, and $184 billion in lost revenue and economic development. WasteZero, a Massachusetts-based startup, has developed several ways to reduce the flow of trash in cities, including a “Pay as You Throw” model that charges residents per bag and diverts profits to the city. The Atlantic reports that since beginning a pay-as-you-throw program in 1993, Worcester, Massachusetts, has seen a 53-percent drop in waste, from 43,000 tons a year to 20,000.

The Baltimore Sun reports that an initiative of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will result in the purchase of large, durable trashcans on wheels for all households in the city. The hope is that these trashcans — with their tight-fitting lids and integration with automated emptying systems on garbage trucks — will reduce both the costs of garbage service and the number of rats in the streets.

A solution to the rat problem and a way to encourage recycling and composting is also planned for the new Hudson Yards development in Manhattan’s Far West Side; one of the developers of the project, Related Companies, is planning to install pneumatic tubes that will whisk trash into a sorting area. The Atlantic reports that residents will be able to drop recyclables and compost into chutes outside of their doors.

Tech’s Multi-Front Approach

While some have advocated for routinely sending large shipments of waste into space to be incinerated by heat from the sun, the more environmentally-friendly and less costly approach is to work to change people’s habits around garbage. Successful models tie waste reduction to everyday actions. Technology that harnesses market forces — such as the inconvenience of being charged for an extra bag of garbage or paying less for so-called ugly produce — helps consumers make more conscientious decisions that benefit themselves as well as society. Convenience also makes a difference; providing easy recycling options that don’t require as much effort, such as automated sorting, will result in more recyclable waste being processed.

The pressure is on for cities to streamline waste management before they suffer consequences. Still, taking care of garbage is not at the top of the national policy priority list — if it were, we’d see laws that hold manufacturers responsible for the amount of waste they produce or more funding for recycling projects. In lieu of this, startups and innovative civic thinking can create tech solutions that reduce waste, save money, and benefit the environment.

Emily Brown

Emily works in urban planning, helping cities to become more competitive. She was named as one of 40 under 40 economic developers, and has taken part in a successful Kickstarter…