AI opportunities in waste management
With a population of over 1.3 billion, India is one of the largest waste producing countries in the world generating 63 million tonnes of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually. Out of this, 5.6 million tonnes and 15 million tonnes are plastic waste and e-waste respectively. Worldwide, managing this waste has traditionally been a largely manual process but now some countries have begun using Artificial Intelligence (AI) for managing and processing this waste. The Indian government, in 2017, formed the ‘Task Force on Artificial Intelligence for India’s Economic Transformation under the ambit of the Commerce and Industry Department with the mission of leveraging AI for economic benefits and creating a legal framework to accelerate the deployment of AI technologies. The task force was subsequently formalised by the Union Cabinet in December 2018. This helped to boost the application of AI within India. However, currently the focus of application of AI within India lies in three industries, i.e., Healthcare, Agriculture and FinTech. Given that waste management is a $15 billion industry in India, there are significant opportunities for the implementation of AI in the waste management industry.
Waste processing cycle goes through 4 major steps, the initial point of waste disposal, waste collection, waste sorting (at waste processing plants) and finally the processing/treatment itself. Countries like South Korea, Finland and Australia have begun tackling 3 out of 4 steps of waste management using AI. Intelligent trash bins are being used to identify the type of waste being thrown inside them; RFID tags are tracking total waste generated and determining appropriate waste collection timings; and autonomous robots are working as waste sorters to sort and match garbage based on specific characteristics. A key advantage of this is that intelligent trash bins and waste sorters are more efficient than workers and can further refine themselves over time by studying their own historical records to improve their efficiency.
In India, an estimated 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste is being generated per day and over 10,000 tonnes of plastic waste is not being collected. Half of the country’s plastic waste is generated in the five cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata. Maharashtra and Delhi are the leading MSW and plastic waste generating states respectively. Herein lies a big opportunity to use AI technology.
Furthermore, due to low awareness and limited resources within India’s MSW labour, especially in the informal sector, workers are exposed to untreated waste. For instance, during the recent corona pandemic, a telephonic survey of 214 sanitation workers in five states and two metros by two independent researchers found that:
- Nearly 64% of 188 sanitation staff who worked during April-May 2020 received no instructions or training related to their safety from Covid-19 infection.
- 92.5% did not have the tools needed to do the cleaning work.
- 90% of workers said they did not have any kind of health insurance or healthcare facility.
- At least 23 sanitation workers in Bengaluru had tested positive for Covid-19.
Furthermore, e-waste, plastic waste and MSW pose serious health concerns for workers. The US Public Health Service has identified 22 human diseases linked to improper solid waste management. In such a scenario, implementing AI can hugely improve public health by decreasing the risk of exposure to diseases associated with MSW.
Countries all over the world have realised the benefits of AI and are making significant investments into it. As a global leader in AI search, State Council of People’s Republic of China has set for itself the goal of becoming a $150 billion AI global leader by 2030. USA, known for its tech culture has channelised $10 billion venture capital funding towards AI. In 2017, UK, with pre-existing 121 AI empowered firms, channelised almost 38% of the entire venture capital into AI even as the UK government cleared funding of $78 million for robotics and AI research. The same year, the Canadian government committed $125 million for AI research. Russia is investing $12.5 million annually into AI. In fact, the Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone so far as to say that whoever leads AI, will lead the world in the near future.
Within India, some companies have started developing AI products like waste sorters for processing plants and for cleaning water bodies. But these are just small drops in an ocean. Given the significant quantum of waste being produced and the increasing population of India, use of AI in waste management can have huge rewards for the entire ecosystem and additionally reduce the burden on the public health system.
This blog has been co-authored by Advek Basoya and Malvika Jain.