Waste causes a literal mountain of problems for many cities. With little local landfill space left, cities such as New York pay to ship their garbage elsewhere. But costs are mounting and other sites are becoming reluctant to serve as dumping grounds. Many of the world’s recyclables once made their way to China, for example, but the country limited the foreign waste imports in 2017. Some cities have reduced the volume of solid waste they generate by implementing effective recycling programmes. As these programmes reach the limits of what they can do in certain cities, the technology could yield further reductions.
Digital tracking and payment for waste disposal enable cities to charge households for the exact weight and type of trash they throw away. Seoul, for instance, has introduced such an RFID-based ’pay-as-you-throw‘system in its larger apartment blocks. It even sends the residents electronic updates about their consumption. It has the potential to reduce the amount of unrecycled municipal solid waste generated per capita by 10–20per cent if implemented at scale—while reducing GHG emissions in the bargain. The opportunity for improvement is largest in cities where current wastage is high and where recycling rates (formal and informal) are low.
But capturing this potential may not be easy in many cities. First and foremost, a city needs a fully functioning, formal waste collection process and enforced laws around illegal dumping. In addition, digital tracking and payment systems must be coupled with programmes that give people viable alternatives for disposing of waste (such as city composting programme). Otherwise, cash-strapped households may resort to discarding waste in private or public areas illegally. Especially, in developing economies, mandating that manufacturers use more recyclable and biodegradable materials in their products and eliminate excessive packaging could yield more impact.