AI: Revolutionizing Waste Management For Sustainability

February 22, 2024


This article first appeared in February’s print edition of Business Monthly.

Waste and carbon emissions have long been the top byproducts of increased human and economic activity. That is particularly evident in low- and middle-income countries whose GDPs grow significantly faster than advanced nations. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, “Emerging economies accounted for almost two-thirds of the world’s GDP growth and more than half of new consumption” from 2003 to 2018.

That disparity is expected to continue. An Economist Intelligence Unit report published in October 2022 projected real GDP growth would remain stronger in emerging markets than in developed economies until 2026.

Such growth means more waste and harmful emissions. “Climate change is impacting the world at a rapid pace, and the best way we can bring change is through optimal waste management,” said CleanRobotics, a developer of eco-friendly products and technologies, on its website. “Waste management is no longer an issue of tomorrow.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly proving a sustainable long-term solution for managing waste, raising public awareness of the problem, and boosting innovation. “Integration of AI in this sector is revolutionizing the way we handle, process, and recycle waste, leading to more efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective waste management practices,” Nicole Sroka, founder of Mind Moves, a business consultancy, wrote on the Solid Waste Association of North America website in December.

Egypt’s strategy

Egypt lags in managing waste. A World Bank Group report in 2022 estimated “more than two-thirds of Egypt’s total solid waste is mismanaged — compared to [an average of] 53% in MENA.”

The government is expediting efforts to improve that track record. A June report from the OECD praised Egypt for “rethinking its economic growth, adapting its strategy to grow more sustainably, [placing] the circular economy (where waste is eliminated) at the heart of [its] sustainability agenda.”

That “rethinking” started with legislation in 2012 allowing the private sector to manage and recycle waste. Also that year, the government began to digitize the monitoring of waste collection and management in Cairo, home to 25% of Egypt’s population, to improve collection and recycling.

In 2015, the state published the National Action Plan for Sustainable Consumption and Production, where one of its four “priority sectors” was municipal solid waste management. It includes “utilizing agricultural waste to produce energy,” treating wastewater, and managing municipal waste.

The official document said it aims to promote good governance; R&D and innovation; public awareness and community engagement; restructure public institutions and legislation; provide access to finance; and encourage investments.

In 2016, the government issued a law requiring cement companies to use organic waste for 10% of their fuel needs. Subsequent law amendments empowered governors to contract with private-sector companies to collect waste.

In January 2020, the Environment Ministry launched the Go Green initiative to raise public awareness of the waste problem and the importance of recycling to lower the economy’s carbon footprint.

The OECD report also noted that more local businesses are joining the foray, “developing circular models … to reduce dependence on scarce resources, create value from waste streams and increase resilience to raw material price fluctuations.”

 AI’s role

For Egypt, ensuring that waste management efforts are more effective requires AI-powered solutions. PLAEX Technologies, a developer of AI-powered tools and technologies, said in a June note on LinkedIn the first benefit of AI is enhancing the efficiency of waste sorting and processing. “By analyzing vast amounts of data, AI systems can identify different types of waste,” the company said. That “allows for more precise sorting and recycling efforts.”

CleanRobotics, a manufacturer of AI-powered devices, said on its website there are two options for separating waste. The first is using AI-powered recycling bins in homes and companies to sort waste as soon as it is thrown away. The other is building a “material recovery facility” for neighboring households and factories to dump waste. They would use the embedded AI system to separate types of waste for collectors.

“AI can turn the 1% of waste that is monitored and analyzed into 100%,” Cathy Hackl, co-founder of Journey, a business consultancy, told Forbes in July 2020.

Meanwhile, data and information collected from AI-powered waste management systems should guide policymakers and businesses to “develop targeted strategies to promote recycling, reduce packaging waste and encourage the adoption of sustainable practices,” PLAEX Technologies noted. Ultimately, “supporting a circular economy and reducing the environmental footprint of waste generation.

Forecasting waste

A unique feature of AI-powered tools is their ability to forecast trends and patterns. “AI systems can analyze historical data and environmental factors to accurately forecast waste generation rates,” said PLAEX Technologies. “By leveraging AI-powered predictive analytics, waste management practices become more sustainable and resource-efficient.”

The top use is predicting the most common types of waste in cities, neighborhoods, and collection, sorting, and recycling hubs, influencing investment decisions based on that data. It also could indicate the most effective kinds of incentives city by city.

Sroka of Mind Moves noted that AI can help “municipalities and waste management companies [plan] more effectively [to meet] seasonal variations in waste generation and in planning for special events.”

Predictive maintenance, powered by AI, will revolutionize how waste management facilities are maintained, noted BlueSky Creations, adding it’s not just about avoiding inconvenience; it’s about saving resources.

AI and awareness

CleanRobotics said a lack of public awareness is the plight of waste management. “Despite their best intentions, [people] often become the biggest barrier to recycling.”

AI can “foster public engagement and awareness in waste management practices,” PLAEX Technologies noted. “Individuals can access personalized information about waste reduction, recycling techniques and sustainable consumption habits.”

“AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants can provide real-time guidance on practices and answer user queries,” said PLAEX Technologies. That “empowers individuals to make informed decisions and actively participate in waste reduction efforts.”

More to come

The increasing number of household devices and factory equipment connected to the Internet and AI algorithms promises innovation in waste management. That direct communication enables AI to collect and learn from the entire ecosystem in real-time, using the data each device produces to recommend or, if authorized, take appropriate actions.

Hackl of Journey said AI-powered fleet management systems would provide more benefits if integrated with AI waste collection and recycling systems. The technology “provides waste-truck drivers with optimized route planners each day,” she said. The planners would connect to “routing optimization software.”

PLAEX Technologies added that connecting AI-powered robotics to AI waste management systems would “revolutionize waste processing and recycling, minimizing human intervention and maximizing accuracy and speed.”

However, as with almost all new technologies, implementing AI in waste management systems relies on individuals. “Artificial intelligence can analyze, predict, and recommend actions,” Hackl said. “However, it’s up to people to make the final call and change the systems in place to make the most of the way we produce.”