Smart trashcans: the beauty of garbage

With the Internet of Things fast becoming a reality, there seems to be a scramble to connect anything and everything to the cloud via your smartphone. The scale is quite staggering. Deloitte predicts that this year alone, 1 billion wireless IoT devices will be shipped, up 60 percent from 2014, leading to an installed base of 2.8 billion. Consulting firm McKinsey has identified 150 use cases (it seems low to me). Included in those devices and use cases are more than a few personal objects: t-shirts, lightbulbs, shoes, suitcases, diapers, trashcans… And while I really, really want to tell you about connected diapers (later), we first need to take a look at connected trashcans. They sound environmentally friendly. Convenient. Helpful. And perhaps a bit intrusive?

(Orla Kiely bins by Brabantia – they may not be smart, but they look pretty good)

(Orla Kiely bins by Brabantia – they may not be smart, but they look pretty good)

First, some cool examples:

The Bruno smartcan (which you can pre-order now for delivery in November 2015) sends you a message when the bin is full, when it needs to be taken out, even when you are running low on trash bags. And it happily vacuums up whatever you sweep towards it – no more struggling with dustpans. To open it, all you have to do is wave your hands above it. That’s pretty amazing technology for only $159.

But, is it technology that we need? Will it help society be more efficient? Will it save costs? So far, it hasn’t been very difficult to tell that a bin needs emptying, using the simple, analog method of not being able to fit anything else into it. I’m not sure that I need yet another interruption via my small screen just to tell me that. Reminding me that the garbage is about to be collected, that could be useful. But I live in a privileged environment in which the garbage is picked up every day, so if I miss one collection, there’ll be another one tomorrow. I love the idea of waving your hands over the bin for the lid to open, but my bin has almost as cool technology that involves opening it by pressing a pedal with your foot. The automatically hoovering up dust and crumbs you push its way does sound very appealing. But I can imagine the vacuum going off any time someone passes too close to the sensor. It would drive our dog crazy. I’m not knocking the invention, it sounds very impressive, and could especially help the elderly (once they get into the habit of checking their smartphones regularly). And if it achieves scale, it could eventually connect to building managers to help them better plan the garbage storage and disposal with the collective data. We’d need to think of a different term, though: “garbage data” just doesn’t sound quite right.

The Genican (which you can also pre-order now for delivery in November 2015) comes at the concept of helpfulness from a different angle. By scanning bar codes of what you throw away, it creates a shopping list for you. Oh, and it will also tell you when the garbage is full. Technically, it’s not a garbage can, but by hanging on to the side of your bin, it makes it really quite smart. That’s pretty amazing technology for only $179.

But, do we really need our garbage cans to dictate our shopping lists? Wouldn’t filtering and deleting the unnecessary items take as much time as jotting down stuff on a piece of paper? Ok, which you would then lose, or on which you would be unable to read your own writing… It would take some effort to get into the habit of scanning the bar codes of the empty boxes you wanted to replace. Sure, it’s doable, but you would still need to remember to add the fresh stuff that the supermarkets increasingly sell wrapping-free. So, again, very cool, but would it be a huge effort saver?

(really not a good look for a city)

(really not a good look for a city)

The potential of smartcans to help with city management is exciting. The BlueCity sensor sits on top of city garbage cans, and lets the trucks know when a can needs emptying. The idea is to make waste pickup more efficient, and less intrusive for the neighbours. This particular gizmo is particularly clever in that it doesn’t broadcast to the cloud directly, it isn’t connected to the internet, which keeps its cost down. It is equipped with a low-frequency Bluetooth transmitter, which piggybacks off any compatible smartphone that just happens to be passing, effectively crowdsourcing the data collection. The passing smartphone in turn transmits the data to the cloud, where it is extracted by the company and transmitted to the garbage collectors. The concept of crowdsourcing municipal data collection is fascinating, and I imagine it would have several other interesting uses.

BigBelly solar-powered urban trashcans compact the trash so that more fits in, and send an email to headquarters when they need emptying. The sensors also report if the bins are getting hot and smelly, which sounds like a huge advantage in the summer. Some even have wifi units in them, with enough bandwidth to run a small business.

(okay, so they're not beautiful)

(okay, so they’re not beautiful)

Back to the bins in your kitchen and bathroom. The BinCam takes trash control a step further: let’s share our recycling activities on social media. Developed by researchers at Newcastle University, the BinCam takes a picture of whatever you’re throwing away, and uploads it to a Facebook page. The idea is to give us “playful engagement and reflection upon a user’s personal bin data”. Right, so we’re ok with photos of our trash, sorry, “waste management activity”, being uploaded to social media? We would do this voluntarily? Probably not, but the scary part comes when you contemplate municipalities and city governments latching onto social media shaming to control how we dispose of trash. On the one hand, it would be great if we could all be more responsible. But on the other hand, um, privacy?

If you’re thinking by now that this is a rubbish idea (sorry), you’re not alone. The developers are aware of the growing social protest, and are trying to figure out how to make the idea of sharing our garbage publicly less intrusive. Anonymous bins? (Where’s the fun in that?) Communal bin data? (What would be the point?)

Over-reaching councils notwithstanding, it seems that the idea of smart trashcans is based on efficiency. Improved trash collection methods will re-allocate personnel and trucks, helping cities stay cleaner and improving overall image. More data on trash disposal habits of neighbourhoods will help to provide better services and recycling stations. And the cool factor of having a smart bin in your kitchen should sell a few units, especially if (thinking ahead here) it congratulates you on a healthy meal. If that same cool bin applauds your recycling efforts with points or badges published on your Facebook page, we could see the gamification of garbage behaviour, with positive ecological consequences. Trash could become something that we’re proud of, something that we brag about, something that we voluntarily share with our friends. Being a responsible disposer could lead to an enhanced professional profile. And neighbours would have something to talk about other than the noisy street works and how the couple on the 3rd floor still haven’t finished their bathroom refurbishment. We could be on the verge of a social revolution.

Or, it could just be a “waste” of time.

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