The world’s population is increasingly urban. Rising along with the urban population are the unpleasant byproducts of living—waste. Solid waste not only poses a threat to our environment but can cost cities millions of dollars each year to collect and manage. Megacities like the New York City spends $1.5 billion annually on collecting residential and public trash.

By 2050, it is expected that world’s urban population will double, and by 2100 the growing urban population will be producing waste at a rate more than triple from today.

TWO IoT, a Taipei-based startup, wants to tackle the less-talked-about waste management problem using two core technologies—IoT and blockchain—to significantly reduce the cost and resources used in large-scale waste management systems.

TWO IoT is developing small and cost-effective sensors that measure the fill levels of waste bins and communicate the waste data to the cloud via wifi or NB-IoT for real-time monitoring and analytics purposes. The hardware device is designed to be integrated into both smaller commercial establishments (such as airports and office buildings) and larger infrastructure that is the entire city. All activity in the waste life cycle from collection to landfill will be stored on IOTA’s decentralized ledger. 

Despite an increasing number of companies developing similar hardware devices—SmartBin from Dublin, Ireland and Ecube Labs from Seoul, South Korea—waste management is still an untapped market. Globally, the market for waste management is projected to be around $562 billion dollars in 2020.

What a waste

The existing waste collection procedures in many cities around the world are costly and time-consuming: garbage trucks drive to designated pickup points (mostly stop-and-go) on a schedule that changes depending on the season and a few other variables. The garbage collector hops-off the vehicle to check whether the bin needs to be emptied, all the while the vehicle is idling. This archaic method of predictive maintenance is still common in waste management.

Hamoun Karami, the founder of TWO IoT, tells TechNode that the company is working on bringing that old-school predictive style maintenance procedure to the 21st century.

Based on real-time data, the analytics can be used to optimize waste collection routes and schedules and thereby reduce congestion and traffic interruption, and consequently, lower carbon emissions. 

Leveraging data in the bins

Understanding waste management through real-time data helps to optimize the process and improve overall efficiency and cost. Karami describes their waste solution as giving garbage bins a “mouth.” Once the waste bins have a mouth, they can speak and they can be heard. Cities can act accordingly to optimize the inefficiencies in their waste management procedures from the waste data that is being communicated in real-time.

“When you visualize the data on the map you can instantly see which bins are getting filled the most, why they are getting filled the most, and is there some kind of optimization that can be done physically,” Karami added that such data, if it does get collected, is not as accurate or reliable as one may think.

All data from waste collection to landfill will be stored on IOTA’s decentralized ledger. (Image Credit: TWO IoT)

TWO IoT has partnered with Taipei-based blockchain startup, Biilabs, to store all this valuable waste management data on IOTA’s Tangle ledger—which lets governments, private companies, or the people managing collection facilities to keep a ledger of their waste data as well as able to manage micropayments.

IOTA is based on a distributed ledger technology (DLT) called Tangle. It is seen as a secure, tamper-proof, and immutable ledger that focuses on solving the scalability issues of IoT devices.

The Taipei city government has officially approved a proof of concept (POC) to integrate the sensors into the first three floors of the Taipei city hall building in August. Earlier this year, Taipei started testing a number of other Tangle-based smart city solutions including digital identification and real-time air pollution monitoring system.

TWO IoT is not the only company that wants to revolutionize the current waste management systems. Ecube Labs is a Korea-based company that has developed a similar smart bin technology. Ecube Labs’ fill-level sensor and cloud-based monitoring and analytics platform have been implemented in the Dublin Airport. According to a report released by the airport, previously 1,200 bins were changed each day, but after implementing the sensors that number has been brought down to just 93 changes per day. According to Taiwan Environmental Information Center (in Chinese), the city of Taipei has around 3000 public waste bins, and neighboring metropolises like Seoul has 4,400, Singapore has 7000, and Hong Kong has 22,000—imagine the resources these cities could save if the smart bin technology were to be implemented city-wide.

Karami said TWO IoT’s smart sensor is priced much lower than Ecube Labs’ sensor. And because TWO IoT’s waste data will be stored on IOTA’s Tangle ledger, which is more optimal for micropayments since it enables feeless transactions, the company can further bring down the cost. Micropayments are a big issue because in many developing countries waste management is privatized by a large number of parties.

The main problems with IoT are the cost, the infrastructure overhaul, fears of deploying a system having it not work out, Karami said. “We’re basically trying to make kind of a plug-and-play installation. We focus on that because we do see it as a problem right now with the market of IoT.”

Karami said the infrastructure overhaul problem is really slowing down adoption, so they try to develop the sensor to be easily installed into existing waste bins—sensors that can be popped up the top of the waste bin or customizable device that can be retrofitted into different types of waste system.

Why Taiwan?

Taiwan has a rich history with hardware manufacturing where IoT is considered a strategic economic area for development. But among people in the know, Taiwan’s waste management is globally recognized. According to Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA), the island’s recycling rate was 55% in 2015, which was significantly higher than the US’s 35%. An article by the Washington Post lauded that the island has emerged from being known as a “Garbage Island” to being an “international poster child for recycling.”

“Taiwan market is very innovative and sustainability-focused,” Karami said if his company could make a difference at a place that’s globally recognized for its waste management system “that just speaks for how much of a difference there’s meant to be made globally.”

Karami revealed that the company now has POCs and talks with clients in other markets and is planning to venture outside of Taiwan by next year.

The open culture of future cities

Among the many promises of future smart cities is to utilize data to not only manage resources more efficiently but also create an environment that promotes transparency and accountability. Data-driven smart infrastructure—from transport to water, energy, and waste—demands an open and transparent culture that empowers the public.

TWO IoT’s vision for smart city waste management systems goes beyond collecting data in the bins and routing trucks, it is planning on extending its services to monitoring trash produced by companies, for example, packaging waste produced by fast food franchises.

“When open data came out there was a tremendous change. Businesses haven’t been the same, we had not been able to be so transparent with business before.” Data transparency is a trend that has been coming forward, Karami said, “for me, there’s no doubt in my mind that’s what the future is going to look like.”

Companies will be compelled to share that data and be held accountable for the waste they produce because smart cities that are now being built around the world aim to create a more transparent environment.