Waste is the eternal burden of civilisation. The earliest known urban garbage dumps are found in Crete, made over 5,000 years ago. Not long after that experiments with recycling began: Chinese societies reused bronze and the Aztecs routinely rescued usable materials from their garbage piles. Even regulation is not new: Athenian Greeks decided over 2,500 years ago that a dump should be located more than a kilometer away from settlements.
How quaint that seems now! Even though ancient societies struggled to keep up with the demands of refuse, it holds no candle to the modern era. A mere two hundred years ago is a lifetime. Back then, in London, dead horses were left to rot on the road as it was easier to remove them in a state of decomposition.
Today that is simply unthinkable, which is why waste managers have jobs without precedent. It has even given rise to new ideas, such as the circular economy. Defined over two decades ago, this outlines industrial economies that produce no waste or pollution in part through built-in recycling practices. Yet whilst the notion of the circular economy has noble and even vital intentions, it is still some way off and until such time as industries, value networks and economies have mastered the circular economy, waste management remains a permanent fixture to the house civilisation builds.
Growing urban populations are placing heavy demands on modern waste disposal. There simply is no space to breathe, even in smaller municipal areas. This is made more acute by growing demand for responsible waste handling, driven by new environmental regulations. Even though such regulations are sound and broadly supported by nations, including South Africa, implementation is very hard when it needs to be pinned on a running target: explosive population growth.
South Africa also has its suite of unique challenges. More than a century of mining activities have created toxic pollution problems that demand urgent action. Yet that is interdependent on overall waste management: if the small problems remain a challenge, the big problems are not going to be toppled. The country’s legacy – which created racially segmented, desperately poor and utterly underserviced regions – also places waste management at the tip of the transformation spear. Quality of life, above all, is something every citizen strives for. Clean streets and clear water are the most obvious measuring sticks for that quality. It is interesting that since Rwanda banned plastic bags, which resulted in a massive decline of casual pollution, the country’s impression with visitors has also grown tremendously.
Waste matters because it is visible and affects everyone. If only the solution was as easy to make as that statement. Waste collection has to operate like clockwork or risk cascading into a series of massive disruptions. For example, the breakdown of a single truck can delay collection by a day, not only leading to upset citizens but a ripple effect across the entire management ecosystem. At the same time waste management outfits are under pressure to cut operational costs, so there may simply not be another truck to deploy.
Yet even if there was an available vehicle, how can operations identify the problem in an actionable time frame, all while managing the disruption over other areas? In some scenarios, such as a worker strike, the delays can become catastrophic, requiring weeks – even months – to recover all the overflow waste and align schedules back to normal.
There are three core problems that affect waste management systems: no end-to-end control, processes and information trapped in silos, and an inability to respond and plan in real-time to scenarios.
In recent years a lot of noise has been made around the concept of Smart Cities. Waste management groups cannot be blamed for rolling their eyes when hearing about yet another futuristic ‘solution’ to a complicated set of challenges. Yet in some cases hype and reality do meet up. By integrating tried-and-tested waste management solutions with an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) culture, the ambition of a real-time, end-to-end approach to reducing garbage is very attainable.
SAP, market leader in enterprise application software, has partnered with waste management expert PROLOGA, to address many of the challenges around this industry: from route planning, real-time equipment oversight, staff management and citizen services to meeting regulatory benchmarks and forward-planning through data collection and predictive analytics. The SAP Waste and Recycling application melds seamlessly with an SAP ERP (enterprise resource planning) system, implemented by experienced partners such as Yash Technologies. Through this solution managers can control equipment age, track disposal bins, align pickup schedules to refuse levels in bins, plan routes with on-the-ground feedback, comply to environmental laws, facilitate recycling economies and more.
SAP waste management technology solutions have many possibilities that are developing from day to day. Amongst others, they are currently also playing a role in helping manage issues related to infectious disease outbreaks in Africa, such as cholera and Ebola. In another example, the central African nation of Gabon is growing its appeal as a tourism destination by tackling the waste problems of its capital Libreville. The city’s inhabitants also quickly cottoned onto the benefits of a cleaner environment, resulting in less littering and proactive beautification of the area.
These are not concepts of tomorrow. Smart technologies are slowly expanding into modern urban environments, fueled by the growth of high speed fibre and mobile networks. Seoul in South Korea is one of several cities trialing smart garbage bins: these will send notifications when they need to be emptied, thus saving unnecessary trips and enabling a proactive approach to waste disposal. The project projects a 20 percent reduction in waste removal trips.
Alternatively, waste can simply be shoved into walls, as the Romans did by breaking down pots that imported olive oil from Spain and insulating their homes with the shards. Whatever was left formed massive garbage piles that today are the happy playgrounds of archeologists. Sadly (or perhaps fortunately) the nature and scale of today’s waste makes that idea impractical. Besides, who wants today’s legacy for the future to be giant rubbish dumps that future Phds trawl in hope of a good grade?