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This article was contributed by Mitrankur (Mit) Majumdar, vice president and regional head of services, Americas at Infosys.
According to the World Bank, approximately 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste is generated across the world annually. With the world’s population set to double, global waste generation could reach 3.40 billion tons by 2050. Managing this waste from collection to disposal is a humungous challenge for environmental services companies.
The only meaningful solution is to prevent the generation of waste in the first place, or failing that, put it back to use to support a circular economy. Apart from reducing, reusing, and recycling waste to the extent possible, companies that manage waste should modernize their processes and technology infrastructure to become more efficient and competitive.
As they become more responsible and sustainable, environmental services companies should think of waste management as the last resort, after they have tried everything possible to prevent waste from ending up in landfills. For one, they can be innovative in reprocessing waste materials by leveraging the right technologies and processes to improve segregation at the source.
A good example here is an Australian firm, which devised a way to extract materials from discarded printer cartridges and soft plastics, mix them with recycled glass and asphalt, and produce high-quality road surfaces which last 65% longer than traditional asphalt. Then there is a Canadian waste management firm, which developed a technology that can commercially extract carbon from non-recyclable and non-compostable trash and convert it into gas used to make biofuels and chemicals used in everyday products.
As for the portion that invariably ends up in landfills, many companies combust or convert it into biogas, and then energy. The Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority in Pennsylvania has been using garbage as fuel to generate electricity for three decades. The process also turns waste to ash, reducing its volume by 90% to drastically save landfill space. Such ‘energy-as-a-service’ capabilities will be critical for waste management companies to open up new revenue streams, all while squeezing more value from waste.
Even as waste management companies adopt new-age technologies on the field, they need to prepare teams and streamline processes to derive maximum value from their investments. Modernizing processes, tech stacks, and legacy infrastructure can enable these companies to become significantly more agile and responsive, which are critical qualities in the modern world. Waste management companies need to move more of their workloads to the cloud if they are to leverage next-gen cloud platforms, edge computing, devops, and real-time enterprise-wide optimizations.
Everything from automating processes to accessing analytics can translate into efficiency and cost savings. People are freed up to focus on tasks that take more thinking and less doing — while also being empowered to make the right decisions based on a stronger understanding of data and critical insights — it is the optimization of the core business function by implementing innovative solutions. Automation can also play a significant role in improving compliance reporting and making customer service faster and cheaper.
A critical item on the modernization checklist is making core changes to tech stacks and their underlying infrastructure for greater modularity and flexibility. A modern tech stack that can integrate with multifarious platforms can make the entire organization more adaptable and responsive to changing times, requirements, and demands. Assessment of existing systems, digital maturity, and business goals, along with the right modernization framework, can help companies not only reduce project costs and timelines but also de-risk modernization efforts and ensure business continuity.
In an already competitive market, waste management companies need to look at modernizing their on-field equipment and processes to bring costs down to a fraction of what they are. And at the same time, these technologies can help increase the safety of their employees as well.
Sensors, data, and connected devices can help waste management companies save millions of dollars by accessing information faster and making the right decisions. For instance, companies can assign multiple jobs to agents simultaneously and capitalize on geolocation and field service management platforms to ensure that tasks are assigned to the right agents, based on skills, territory, proximity, priority, and other factors. Such optimizations can improve success rates as well as worker productivity.
Further downstream in the value chain, technology can speed up as well as improve waste segregation. This can not only help companies extract more recyclables every hour but also improve the quality, and therefore the value, of these materials. Technology can also mitigate the many challenges posed by landfills, such as the potential hazard to surveyors, and the complexity of monitoring landfill emissions. Here, drones and satellite imagery, combined with AI and image recognition systems, can improve accuracy and efficiency to unprecedented levels.
Waste management companies are dealing with impossible amounts of waste on the one hand due to increasing urbanization, and escalating operational costs and regulations on the other. Apart from reducing the waste payload through circular economy practices, the companies should orchestrate the entire waste management cycle to make it more efficient. That calls for modernizing processes and operations with technology, both within the organization and on the field.
Mitrankur (Mit) Majumdar is vice president and regional head of services, Americas at Infosys.
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