Space - Waste’s final frontier

The evolution of waste has been - and continues to be – a very interesting journey. First came basic containerisation and the understanding that in order to keep places clean and safe from bacteria and illnesses, waste needed to be stored and managed in separate areas.

Then came recycling engagement and the acknowledgement that simply throwing materials into the ground was not only unacceptable, but wholly unsustainable both it terms of the earth’s landfill capacity and its negative environmental impact.

Over recent years we have seen the debate move towards waste as a valuable resource; a radical adjustment that, for many, could never have been predicted.

However, perhaps the most interesting shift so far is the one that we are now in the midst of. This shift not only evaluates waste from an environmental, social and economical standpoint, but also a practical perspective, too.

This shift relates to viewing waste through the prism – and limitations - of space.

Waste vs. space

Interestingly, when approaching waste in the context of space, it quickly becomes evident that spatial cannot be considered a fourth and standalone category after environmental, social and economical. In fact space is almost the base layer for these three well-documented pillars of sustainability.

An environmental perspective

Large quantities of bins, particularly overfull bins, are unsightly, unhygienic and contribute towards pest infestations. Secondly, the continual movement of heavy waste collection vehicles, all of which omit significant levels of carbon dioxide, is intrusive and compromises the environments of those who inhabit the space.

However, in the context of this piece and against the backdrop of a growing global population, we must ask where all the bins needed to serve a growing population will physically fit as developable land – and therefore much-needed waste storage space - shrinks.

In densely populated cities, such as London, the issue of space in relation to waste has never been so relevant.

“Generally speaking, the bigger the development, the greater the number of bins a local authority provides’, says Dave Buckley, Envac UK’s General Manager . “The problem is that many cities in the UK are currently building at densities of 250 homes per square hectare. Some parts of London are even developing 400 homes per hectare. At this level you have to ask where are all the bins going to go?”

However, it is not just the containers and the space required to house them that raise question marks over using traditional waste collection in densely populated cities, but the infrastructure required to support their collection.

“In cases where you have 8,500 Eurobins on a development at all times, the local authority will require at least 12 refuse collection vehicles working to full capacity every day to empty them”, continues Dave. “That’s before you factor in the time and cost associated with physically moving them from where they’re stored to the collection vehicle, which only reduces the efficiency of the twelve vehicles.”

Now, perhaps more than ever before, towns, cities and governments must question the validity of traditional waste collection in urban environments from a practicality viewpoint and with the future limitations of waste storage space in mind.

A social perspective

Dave Buckley’s view is echoed by Ulf Ranhagen, one of Sweden’s most prominent strategic urban planners and a key figure in the formation of Sweden’s Sustainable City Concept, the subsequent SymbioCity market platform and the SymbioCity Approach conceptual framework.

As a huge proponent of implementing robust planning methodologies that deliver economical, sustainable, social and spatial value, Ulf is unequivocal about the relationship between waste and space.

“We all know and understand the implications of overfull bins in public areas. They’re smelly, unattractive and take up huge volumes of space. By using alternatives to traditional waste collection methods, such automated waste collection, cities that choose to adopt the technology can immediately reallocate space to other uses that add more value to society such as the provision of additional bicycle storage, vibrant retail space and even extra residential units. Automated waste collection also facilitates the planning and development of denser, less car-dependent and more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly urban areas, too.”

If, by simply adopting another approach to waste collection, architects and developers can add social value to their projects, then why isn’t this commonplace in cities where rapid urbanisation and a lack of available space for containers will, ultimately, force the hands of those responsible for managing waste within the urban realm?

Surely it is only a matter of time before the common default response of adding more bins to a fleet is not only regarded as environmentally irresponsible and anti-social, but also impractical, too.

“The case for installing technology such as Envac is undoubtedly very compelling and the positive citywide strategic implications are undeniable”, continues Ulf, “however the challenge now is to ensure that mayors of cities and those working at a political and urban management level hear these environmental, socio-cultural, economical and spatial benefits. After all, it is these people who are responsible for making the decisions, which, in both the short and long-term, will greatly enhance communities and futureproof cites by making them more resilient.”

Ironically, in many parts of the world that are home to densely populated cities, the environmental and social benefits of restricting, if not replacing, manual waste collection with automated waste collection systems are not in debate. The stumbling block is often attributable to money.

An economical perspective

Budgetary restrictions are ultimately the final and, more often than not, largest of hurdles to jump.

And when it comes to waste collection, the tendency to select the solution with the lowest barrier to entry generally wins the race. After all, containers can simply be added to a fleet for minimal capital investment, albeit at the expense of an increased operational cost.

And this barrier doesn’t exclusively apply to those responsible for waste management in any given urban realm at local government level. If anything, waste managers and facilities managers are typically at the end of the chain. The cost-related barrier first presents itself at the design stage and then at the point of development.

Is it, therefore, the architects and designers who are responsible for rethinking waste?

“From the perspective of an architect or developer, if you can save space you can save money”, says Ulf. “The irony is that automated waste collection not only saves money by reducing the amount of space required for waste collection but it also helps contribute towards creating people-friendly environments in the process. In fact, through Hammarby Sjostad and Western Harbour, Envac demonstrated how waste could be completely reframed as an integral component of the urban realm that actually added social and aesthetical value to a development rather than reduce it.”

Adding value through waste in North America

This is supported through a recent study of a planned North American development, which used the industry-standard net operating method (NOI) to establish that installing an automated waste collection system in a residential development comprising 1,250 apartments actually increased the value of the development.

Despite automated waste collection’s initial capital expenditure being several times more expensive than traditional waste collection, its reduction in operational costs combined with an increase in revenues made possible by reallocating waste storage space other commercial uses, such as building more units for residential, commercial and retail space, actually increased the property value compared to the alternative solution.

The findings demonstrated that whilst an Envac system cost $4,079,882 more than traditional waste collection methods dependent on bulky containers, it delivered $6,275,240 additional value than traditional collection, calculated on the basis of a 5 per cent yield. This was due to a reduction in operational costs attributable to collection vehicles, porters moving bins to and from collection points and the fact that the land that was ‘unlocked’ for commercial use by the developer.

Profiting from waste collection?

It would seem that the economic case for automated waste collection technology is already gaining ground. After all, if value can be established by simply applying a formula – in this case NOI – then the economic grounds for automated waste collection can be made clear right at the start of a development’s lifecycle.

Similarly, recent updates to Spain’s building regulations, which were published as clarifying comments to Código Técnico de la Edificación de España (CTE) – Spain’s technical building code – state that developers that install automated waste collection systems are now exempt from having to build storage rooms specifically to house waste containers.

The CTE states that for every apartment built in Spain, 0.8 m2 must be allocated to waste container storage space. This requirement no longer applies to developers installing automated waste collection systems. The move, which frees up significant space that has traditionally had to be set aside for waste storage, will now reduce developers’ build costs, the average rate of which in Spain is €700 per sq. m.

“This is a pivotal moment for automated waste collection and one that makes Envac a much more viable proposition for developers”, says Carlos Bernad, Envac Iberia’s President. “The barrier is generally with the developer, who sees no value in installing automated waste collection if they also have to bear the cost of building waste storage facilities. The CTE’s decision not only removes that barrier but incentivises developers to add value to their developments by installing it.”

The capacity to leverage waste collection as a route to increasing profits is one more twist in the evolutionary tale of waste. A twist that will not only see developers incentivised to use automated waste collection by being rewarded with either reduced build costs or increased profits, but also one that has the capacity to deliver greater environmental, social and economical benefits for all of its stakeholders.