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Adventures in Digital Tracking: A Conversation with Recyclebank’s chief operations office, Scott Lamb

Written by Charles Waltner, Smart+Connected Communities Institute
Published: February 8, 2011

In 2005 Recyclebank set out to encourage recycling. The company wanted to use digital technology to track how much people recycled and then reward them with redeemable credit that could be used to purchase products or services from local and national retailers.

There was just one problem. No one had done this before. So Recyclebank’s chief operating office, Scott Lamb, had to figure it out. “Conceptually, this sounds simple, but what we discovered was that it gets complicated to apply the technology to every possible scenario,” he says.

Garbage trucks, recycle bins, collection processes, and people’s behaviors are never consistent from market to market, requiring special considerations and creating different technical challenges. Lamb had worked in the waste management industry his entire life, but during the last five years he had to become a technology expert. “It was a real eye-opener when we started,” Lamb says. “You can do just about anything you want with technology, but the question is always, ‘At what price?”

Lamb persevered, however, and the Recyclebank now tracks almost 2 million recycling containers. The Smart+Connected Communities Institute recently spoke with Lamb about his experience developing Recyclebank’s tracking system.


What were the options for digitally tracking residential recycling when you started five years ago?


Scott Lamb: There were a few choices, including low-frequency RFID (radio frequency identification), ultra high-frequency RFID, bar code and GPS. Low-frequency RFID has become our most commonly used technology. It has been used in Europe for years, where some countries have pay-as-you-throw residential waste tracking systems.

Low-frequency RFID, however, has a very short range of only four or five inches. It is also relatively expensive because the tags use more materials than ultra high-frequency RFID tags, but they have proven to be durable, which is very important. We also looked at bar code scanning, but those systems just are not durable enough for our use. And GPS at the time wasn’t accurate enough to dependably identify bins between homes.


What have been some of your biggest challenges?


Scott Lamb: One of our biggest technical challenges was in recording the before-and-after weights of each recycling bin. At first we used a “static” scale, which required the garbage collectors to stop and weigh the box twice for “before” and “after” weights. Even with practice, that still took the garbage collectors an extra five seconds for each bin. Multiply that by the 700 to 1000 homes typically serviced in a day, and that time quickly adds up.

So we moved to “dynamic” weighing, which happens while the garbage truck arm lifts the bin into the truck. The scale sits on the arm and takes hundreds of measurements and then averages the data. It provides a very precise measurement. But to get that technology developed for our needs, we had to do a lot of legwork, including accessing third-party patents.

Now you are also using GPS in some cases. Why is that?


Scott Lamb: Unlike the RFID approach, GPS is tied to the parcel, not the container. Each time the scale takes a reading, it also records its GPS coordinates. When we first started, GPS was not accurate enough to be reliable. But now each recycling bin only has to be about 20 feet apart for GPS to be able to differentiate between bins. This is still not accurate enough for some high-density urban areas, but it works well in the suburbs and other residential neighborhoods.


Are you researching any new technologies for tracking recycling?


Scott Lamb: Ultra high-frequency has become less expensive than low-frequency RFID and has a range of 15 feet, making it easy to scan the tags. But the question is the durability of tags, which don’t have the long track record of low-frequency RFID.

We are also looking at video technology, which would be able to record volume. This wouldn’t give us weight but could confirm basic recycling habits in situations where RFID wouldn’t be practical.

We are also looking at sonar-based sensors. These are already used for commercial waste containers. The sensors can tell how full a container is and notifies the waste management company when it needs to be replaced. So far, though, this type of application is too expensive for residential use. Also, it relies on Wi-Fi communications, which isn’t viable along most of our collection routes.

In both of these cases, we are trying to find other ways to record the recycling volumes for our customers. Scales have to dependably operate in the Minnesota winter and the Arizona summer. They really need to be military-grade, but that’s been hard to achieve with low-cost technology. So we are always looking for new options.


What have been some of your biggest ‘lessons learned’ about digital tracking?

Scott Lamb: It’s been lots of trial and error, lots of piloting and testing trying to find what works and then what is cost-effective. The more upstream you can get in the manufacturing process, the better. Things like industry standards and wider adoption are huge factors in pricing and product diversity. Your company won’t have the core competency of specialized technology vendors. You need to partner with smart engineers to help solve your technical challenge.

We were trying to do something new, and that meant there weren’t any off-the-shelf products for us to use, at least not without integrating them into a bigger system. We were able to find the technologies and the vendors, but without economies of scale, these products were expensive. Now we are trying to cultivate more market competition. And, in fact, most waste management companies are looking at similar digital tracking technologies for asset and inventory control, such as tracking waste bins and monitoring productivity of their crews and trucks. Prices have come down but if the market grows for these kinds of products, prices will certainly fall even more and more innovation will happen.

You can also view this article here.

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