How does technology assist in waste sorting and smart city development in China?

On July 1, 2019, Shanghai became the largest Chinese city to implement mandatory waste sorting. Under the new regulations, waste is divided into four groups: “wet” waste (organic waste, including food scraps and yard trimmings), recyclables, hazardous waste, and “dry” waste. Everyone in Shanghai is subject to the new rule, including visitors. Individuals who fail to comply with the rule will be fined up to RMB 200 (USD 29).

China generates 210 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) every year, second only to the United States’ 258 million tons, according to a World Bank database. Approximately 60% of the 21,000 tons of MSW generated per day in Shanghai is “wet” waste, whereas only roughly 35% of New York City’s 24,000 tons of daily MSW is classified as such. “Wet” waste, unlike “dry” waste, is not suitable for landfills or incineration, as the former usually leads to soil pollution and the latter to methane gas release. Separating “wet” waste from other waste makes treatment (recycling or waste-to-energy) more efficient in Shanghai.

The main issue with the four-group classification is very clear, as more waste collection trucks are required. Some districts in Shanghai have already reported truck shortages. Another challenge is that many cities worldwide face waste industry labor shortages. Due to stigmas surrounding waste and low wages, few young or well-educated people want to be garbage truck drivers. It is difficult for many city planners to use their limited resources to effectively collect waste from every corner of large cities.

Barcelona, with a five-group sorting system, spent 1.5 billion euros over four years on waste and recycling. The city taps into Cisco’s IoT technology to make sure it empties trash bins only when necessary. Cisco has set up wireless sensors to monitor how full each trash bin is, and sends a notification to authorities when they are more than 50% full. A data analytics platform collects, processes, and distributes information on trash bins to city agencies and waste hauling service providers. The platform also provides an optimized route to empty bins based on the garbage truck, driver, traffic, weather. Sensors can also detect other incidents such as fires or overflows and alert city officials to increase response speed. It is estimated that Barcelona will save USD 4 billion over the next 10 years because of the IoT-aided waste management technology.

Typically, solid waste management accounts for 15% to 50% of a typical municipality’s total spending. The annual growth rate of MSW production in Shanghai is about 4%. As a result, technological solutions are urgently needed to bridge the gap between waste increases and the city’s limited collection and disposal resources. 

Shanghai unveiled a list of artificial intelligence (AI) application scenarios on July 4, 2019, where the technology will be used to identify waste, notify city authorities when it should be picked up, and then efficiently sort and transport the waste. The AI will also help robots process and recycle the waste. What happens in Barcelona will soon happen in Shanghai too

Waste management is just one of the functions that cities provide their residents. It is a fundamental service we enjoy every day but often underestimate or take for granted. But cities provide other systems like emergency response and waste water treatment that can also benefit from smart technological innovations. More and more cities have started to undergo digital transformations, and that’s why Smart City-related investments in China are predicted to increase from RMB 375 billion in 2017 to RMB 1234 billion in 2021.

Photo: The smart city investment forecast in China, Graph made by Daxue Consulting, data gathered from Zhiyan Consulting Group

Several years ago, residents in Panyu, Guangzhou complained about the smell coming from the Huoshaogang landfill site. In 2016, Panyu District decided to act, signing a MOU with Cisco and others to transform the area from an industrial area to a cutting edge smart city. The partnership will remodel Panyu District, making it an innovation and research hub.

As the Chinese government continues its innovation-driven development strategy, more and more cities will undergo technological transformations. In the near future, more challenges like waste disposal will be better handled.

(Top photo by RitaE from Pixabay)

Fang Yuan

Fang Yuan is our columnist. She used to live in New York and is originally from Shanghai. She is a Certified Passive House Consultant and works on sustainable building consulting. She believes that technology helps people and the environment if it is being used mindfully.

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