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Dirty to Digital: Changing the Way We Think About Waste
UW introduces ‘intelligent’ kiosks for composting, recycling and garbage disposal.
By Alex Credgington

Solar-powered. Wireless. Data-driven. You might not think of these terms when describing waste collection, but this traditionally low-tech field is about to become less dirty and more digital thanks to a new program at the University of Washington.

BigBellyBeginning in April, when you toss your empty soda bottle into a recycling container on the University’s famed Red Square, you will be part of a system that makes waste collection efficient, sustainable and educational. That’s because the existing outdoor garbage and recycling cans will be replaced with high-tech, automated kiosks that collect more types of materials.

The new kiosks consist of three containers for sorting waste (composting, recycling and garbage), each of which is equipped with a sensor that regularly measures the mass of material inside. This information is reported wirelessly to a central hosted server that UW Recycling & Solid Waste staff can monitor through a secure online dashboard. Staff can view the current status of any kiosk on campus and run reports based on historic collection information. When any of the three containers in a kiosk reaches a preset capacity, the device sends a text message to the system notifying staff that the container is ready to be serviced.

“The software records what’s going on with the hardware,” said Jonathan Hempton of BigBelly Solar, the company that supplies this ‘intelligent’ waste collection system. “By logging into the online dashboard, staff are able to see what’s happening on the ground in real-time rather than having to regularly check containers by hand.”

The garbage container also has an automated compactor that increases the amount of garbage space by roughly 500% over the previous cans, and will eliminate four out of every five collection trips, according to Hempton. What’s more, the kiosks are completely solar powered.

“It’s changing the way we think about waste,” said UW Recycling & Solid Waste Manager Emily Newcomer. “We expect the increased capacity and the as-needed servicing to dramatically reduce our fuel use and disposal costs while using a sustainable energy source to create these efficiencies. It’s a win for our planet and a win for our university.”

The kiosks also include built-in billboards that will be used for educating the public about the benefits of composting and recycling, as well as how to appropriately sort waste materials into the containers.

BigBelly2“We’re thinking of waste collection as a system rather than the sum of its parts,” said Newcomer. “It’s everyone reducing and sorting their waste and how we, as a university, manage the waste. The kiosk approach will provide a direct way to educate people about what goes where, and then we’ll take it from there.”

The University of Washington will be the first university nationwide to use this system to capture all three waste types (composting, recycling and garbage) in an outdoor public area.

“We are thrilled to help UW lead the way on the path to Zero Waste goals with the BigBelly Solar kiosks,” said Hempton.

UW Recycling & Solid Waste sought the kiosks in response to results from its annual Trash-In, an event in which volunteers sift through a sample of campus garbage to separate compostable and recyclable material. According to Newcomer, the event in 2011 revealed that 61 percent of garbage from Red Square was actually compostable.

Seven kiosks will be installed in Red Square to coincide with the 2012 Trash-In event and subsequent Earth Day celebrations on campus.

“Starting this program in the center of campus activity will give us the best exposure and the best data,” said Newcomer. “We’ll be able to leverage the technology to its potential to build a clear picture for the future."