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World Changing Ideas

How Smart Cans Are Making Garbage Pickup Cheaper And Less Smelly

In San Francisco, Compology is putting sensors in cans and tablets in garbage trucks to plan the perfect route.

How Smart Cans Are Making Garbage Pickup Cheaper And Less Smelly

New bins will tell drivers when they are almost full.

Photo: Johnny Habell via Shutterstock

It's questionable whether some things really need to be connected to the Internet. We can probably do without Wi-Fi wine bottles and pregnancy kits. But putting a chip inside garbage cans is a good idea. Knowing when a container is full and needs emptying means more timely collection, and it means you can avoid emptying the cans when you don't need to empty them.

This is the proposition of Compology, a San Francisco startup. It makes a rugged sensor that takes a picture of a can's contents, which it then analyzes automatically. By making cans intelligent, it can optimize route-planning for collection trucks, and save haulers up to 40% of their normal costs, it says.

"Waste collection has been the using the same model [forever]," says co-founder Jason Gates. "You use the same schedule to pick up from the same containers every Wednesday, whether those containers are full or not. Waste companies have designed their business models to profit from picking up containers that are less than full. The most profitable container is one that's all air."

Compology offers a service model where it installs sensors and puts tablets in drivers' cabs, displaying route information. It works with commercial and industrial cans of between two and 40 cubic yards. It doesn't service residential customers, because there's less opportunity to change how pickups are done.

Gates started Compology in 2012 with his high school friend Ben Chehebar. They both had experience with the waste management business and saw a gap in the market for optimized collection. Most technology for the industry has focused on landfill management and recycling, Gates says. Compology's customers include private haulers (which Gates won't name) and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

"Waste collection is a very competitive, highly commoditized business," Gates says. "There's a race to the bottom on price and companies are always looking for a differentiator." It helps that cutting collections reduces truck pollution and traffic.

Compology's system distinguishes between different types of cans. So, for example, if a restaurant does most of its business at a weekend, the planner will call for a collection on a Friday even if the can is only half full. By contrast, if an office park can is half full on a Friday, it won't pick up until Monday because the can is unlikely to get any fuller before then.

Gates doesn't think residential cans will become smart the same way commercial ones have. But he does see an opportunity for haulers to give residential customers more information about how much garbage they're producing relative to their neighbors. That might encourage families to produce less waste, just like Opower informs people about their energy usage. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing, properly exploited.

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