Waste collection and road cleaning services stand out as one of the major challenges for cities, accounting for 20% of the municipal budget in some cases. As cities grow, they produce more and more waste (70% increase each decade) and spending will increase proportionally, if not remedied.
However, not all administrations have access to information and knowledge about how to make waste collection and road cleaning services more efficient and sustainable. Moreover, these services are among the most visible to citizens, so a cleaner city immediately translates into a better public image for the city council and the service it provides to its citizens.
In our current context—marked by increasingly tighter budgets—local governments are forced to "do more with less". This further complicates maintaining or even increasing the quality of service delivered to citizens. Providing traditional services is rendered virtually impossible.
The question is whether we can have cleaner and more sustainable cities paying the same or even less.
Increasing the quality of service while simultaneously reducing costs necessarily means digitalizing it. Digitalizing our physical surroundings by following the IoT paradigm allows us to truly understand what is going on in the day-to-day service, become more familiar with it, be more transparent, and improve it.
However, digitalizing a traditional service will not bring about the desired continuous improvement. Sensors alone will not contribute to efficiency. To boost efficiency, the operation must be monitored and used to make data-based decisions. It is important to keep in mind that sensor technology is only a tool for accessing data, but it is also our responsibility to turn data into knowledge, allowing for efficient decision-making.
It should be noted that this idea will only work if all those involved (town halls, contract companies, and technology partners) can collaborate and look toward the future together in search of a common benefit.
How much will digitalization cost me?
Between 1% and 4% of the traditional service, the budget should be sufficient to digitalize it. Achieving a level of service efficiency to cover that investment should not be difficult, as there are numerous points of improvement.
The most obvious smart solution in these cases is monitoring the fill levels of waste containers. The direct benefit is knowing in real-time the fill level, which allows us to optimize our trucks' collection routes, avoiding dumping out dumpsters that are not sufficiently full. This information may involve redefining and optimizing the topology of dumpsters available on the streets to reduce the number of dumpsters collected each day by half, as the case may be, with savings resulting from adjusting route planning to the city's real needs. Operating costs for this part of the service in some cases can be slashed by up to 40%.
The onboard telemetry devices on the municipal vehicle fleet provide real-time relevant information about drivers' driving style. This allows us to identify potential areas of improvement in how vehicles are handled, which translates into a fuel efficiency improvement of up to 5% and reduced damage and wear of tires.
Determining cleaning vehicle routes and activity helps us boost productivity by up to 10%, by optimizing mechanical cleaning routes, improving working times, stops and transit times which are sometimes non-productive and can be minimized through enhanced planning.
The use of smartphones as a standard work tool allows us to reduce the costs of handling incidents and work orders, or street asset inventory tasks (dumpsters, bins, tree protectors, etc.), making use of the device's GPS positioning and radio frequency (NFC/RFID) label reading capabilities.
"Technology is a means to make a service smarter. It is never an end in itself.” This is the philosophy that cities must pursue in all their urban services.
These new ways of providing services aim to optimize citizens' quality of life, first and foremost, and ensure financial sustainability.
When compared to traditional service costs, the cost of digitalization would be recovered quickly thanks to improved efficiencies. But we must remember that digitalization is only a tool. On its own, it will only be an added and unnecessary cost, so if we deploy the solution we must be willing to use the information reported and make decisions to help us improve. At the end of the day, the service is still managed by people, not by devices.