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Space Solutions for Waste

In the future it may be possible that your waste will be collected by autonomous vehicles using precise positioning systems, satellite monitoring will help to prevent unsightly illegal dumping activities, and we will be using the satellite enabled internet of things to monitor landfills to detect fire and landfill gas problems before they turn into major disasters. These are some of the potential ways that space can assist the waste industry to become safer, more efficient and less costly that were identified in a workshop held on the 19 January 2016 in Harwell. 


Following the workshop ESA have now issued an Invitation to Tender (ITT) on Waste Management as part of their ARTES Integrated Applications Promotion (IAP) programme (https://artes-apps.esa.int/opportunities/invitation-to-tender/waste-management). The call encourages applications for feasibility studies of up to 12 months in duration. Deadline for applications is the 16 December. Full details are available on EMITS (emits.esa.int) under AO8787, where all of the ITT documents can be downloaded.


The European Space Agency (ESA) and Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) ran a half-day event to investigate the potential for making use of space technologies for the waste industry. The event at the new European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT) ESA facility in Harwell involved 30 experts from a range of areas in the waste management industry, including those involved in collection, disposal, treatment and use. 


The purpose of the workshop was to gather insight into the processes of the Waste Management industry, to identify the relevant opportunities and challenge areas and to derive first hand user requirements. 


As an initial starting point, the following topics, where space-based services in combination with terrestrial technologies could provide added value over current practices and operations, were discussed at the workshop:

  • Logistics and recycling of commercial / industrial / domestic waste;
  • Biomass / anaerobic digestion and greenhouse emissions;
  • Landfill issues and illegal waste dumping.


Presentations on UK waste management activities were given by Steve Lee (Chartered Institution of Waste Management, CIWM), Lesley Rapley (Exeter City Council) and Stephanie Gray (Isle of Man Government). Not surprisingly the UK waste management activities were diverse and issues varied from council to council. 


Some councils were embracing space technology by using satellite enabled positioning (GNSS) which has been installed in refuse and recycling vehicles in Exeter and hand-held devices have been used for reporting fly tipping, graffiti and bulky collections. Using this information means better data and therefore crews can react to their environment as they undertake normal work.


Some of the major issues identified include:

  • recycling is important on both the bulk scale and also on specific materials and residues; 
  • issues around flood impact on waste management infrastructure; 
  • smoke and landfill gas plume monitoring; 
  • new legislation meaning there is limited time left for landfill waste;
  • monitoring of legacy landfill sites. 


During the workshop challenges and solutions were discussed for the three main topics identified.


Logistics and recycling of commercial / industrial / domestic waste


The management of commercial, industrial and domestic waste is influenced by a number of factors including storage, collection, logistics and the value of any recycled material.


A stable market for secondary materials is key for the development and growth of the recycling industry, however the market price is often volatile. A key enabling solution would be monitoring the status or stock of mining and metal reserves that could provide valuable information on future material prices and hence the need to recycle materials of which we have almost run out. A good example is Geospatial Insight Ltd, based at Harwell’s ESA Business Incubation Centre, who are working towards the launch of an innovative product using a range of earth observation sources to monitor the status of the copper supply chain.


Storage of waste is now subject to significant regulation. Improved monitoring of waste sites using space and airborne sensors, coupled with better meteorological forecast data (wind speed, direction, etc), could be used to understand stocks of (recycled) materials and to enhance the safety of these storage sites and thereby lower the (high) insurance costs.


Currently municipal waste collection takes place at rush hour, mainly because people like to see their waste collected. This is disruptive and has knock-on effects, e.g. increased emissions due to congested traffic. Although bin collection times are part of wider waste planning they could benefit from improved logistics, e.g. using dynamic route scheduling. In future collections could be made using autonomous vehicles to increase the efficiency of transporting waste and recycling. By building a better re-use system using logistics mapping, a better siting of hubs for different material flows could be set up. This could be achieved through simulations based on latest census data and transport logistics data. Integration of waste material collection from construction or demolition sites would further optimise the waste logistics system.


In rural areas with limited mobile connectivity, e.g. Wales, Lake District and Scotland, satellite communications could have application for refuse collection. This could be especially important for post flooding situations where there are skips of flood-damaged goods for collection.


Biomass / anaerobic digestion and greenhouse emissions


Methane and other gas losses from a biomass or landfill environment are an issue that leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions while losing a valuable energy resource. Losses come from fracking wells, landfill sites, or petrochemical pipes transporting gas to nearby power plants. A high accuracy of measurement is needed to understand where these losses are happening. Lots of technology is available, but there is little effort in monitoring due to the associated costs. However, to understand a business case supporting monitoring of these gases, it will be necessary to first estimate the overall value of methane losses at county and national level and compare them with the monitoring costs. 


Logistics of Biomass and Anaerobic Digestion is difficult due to problems such as fragmentation of the sectors producing waste / biomass, and ensuring continuous supply of waste to consumption centres, requiring storage close to those points. Solutions using satellite technology would be able to cover a large number of regions as well as going directly to national or international scale.


Landfill issues and illegal waste dumping


Increasing costs of sending waste to landfill are the main driver for innovation in this area.


For legal landfill sites monitoring of the spatial extent, height and leachate produced are important factors.  Accumulation of methane and increase of heat inside a landfill area can cause fires and be a risk for health and safety. This is considered a key issue as a fire in a landfill can create significant economic problems to the operator of the landfill, as well as have a major environmental impact on the surroundings. New developments in the Internet of Things mean that automatic integration of sensors to monitor gas and heat build-up (before combustion) and transmission of relevant data is possible. For landfill sites in areas with little connectivity satellite communications could provide the means of transmitting relevant on-site data to a central location for analysis.


Many of the UK’s landfill sites are at risk of flooding and coastal erosion therefore mapping of legacy landfill sites for subsidence, where height variation in mm per year needs to be monitored, is important to prevent leakage of hazardous waste1. Techniques such as Interferometric SAR can monitor changes on this scale and have been used to monitor building subsidence2.


Small illegal landfills are surprisingly widespread and can be quite large in extent, especially for problematic waste with high associated disposal costs, e.g. tyres. Identifying new sites using remote sensing change detection could be a potential application.


Other issues important for the waste industry include identifying old landfill sites, illegal burning and tracking of waste.





Clearly there are areas of waste management where an increased use of space based assets could provide significant benefits from improved logistics through to gas monitoring from landfill sites. Through the targeted ESA IAP call covering any area of waste management, UK and European businesses can apply for funding to tackle these issues and develop new innovative products and services.









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