Features, News, Opinion

Opinion: Australia’s $80m illegal rubbish dumping issue can be tackled through tech

Dodgy dumpers are causing big problems for Australia Subhash Challa, the former senior principal scientist at NICTA, University of Melbourne explains. 

Unwanted build-up of waste not only leads to long-term contamination of land, waterways and groundwater, it also impacts wildlife and our own public health too. It also comes with a hefty price tag. Australian taxpayers are ploughing a staggering $80 million a year in clean-up costs alone. This includes monitoring, investigating, enforcing and cleaning.

Why exactly is it so costly?

Eradicating illegal dumping isn’t an easy task. Manual labour is often the most significant cost, as teams of staff have to be deployed to sieve through unwanted items, organise collections and address complaints.

Additionally, once authorities have discovered an illegal dumping act, a significant amount of time and resources have to be spent going through the CCTV footage to investigate the act. This could mean manually backtracking the origin of the waste through barcodes or screening license plates to find the culprit.

Councils and governments are having to inject additional funds and resources to ensure enough employees are available to tackle this growing issue. This diverts resources away from other important issues.

In some cases, council staff aren’t equipped with the expertise to deal with specialist waste. Take the removal of asbestos waste for example – specialist contractors are required to take charge of disposal, further hiking up the costs involved in tackling this issue. Charities, on the other hand, are struggling with contaminated waste left at donation bin sites. The National Association of Charitable Recycling Organisations estimates 60,000 tonnes of unwanted items go to landfill each year and costs charities $13 million a year.

The knock-on effect of rubbish dumping can be felt across other businesses too. Landfill organisations and waste contractors miss out on revenue that would have been generated if the waste had been correctly disposed of.

Given the strain illegal dumping is placing on councils, charities and businesses alike, many cities are inevitably struggling to obtain levels of cleanliness to improve the liveability of our cities.

A technology-driven solution awaits

Despite this growing problem, there is a glimmer of hope. New technologies that leverage artificial intelligence (AI), automation, Internet-connected hardware (or IoT) and smartphones, are coming together to create a solution that can reduce the legwork required to tackle illegal dumping.

We’re already seeing this technology come into our lives via smart assistants like Siri and Alexa, to internet-connected fridges and light bulbs. It is quickly becoming commonplace in our daily lives and is about to shake up the way we monitor, analyse and enforce illegal dumping activities.

The commoditisation of this technology is bringing down the cost and resources required to monitor and enforce illegal dumping. Instead of needing to implement expensive hardware – such as bespoke camera equipment and a team to monitor and analyse the footage – smart technologies are able to process all this information in real-time, with much less hardware.

Taking smart technology to the next level

Today, illegal dumping activities can be monitored, analysed and processed through smartphones and app-based AI-powered software. Thanks to the increased processing power and video capabilities of smartphones, next-generation mobile networks and AI, these app-based monitoring, analysis and reporting solutions will have a significant impact on how we combat illegal dumping.

Essentially, instead of investing in bespoke camera equipment, smartphone cameras can now be used to monitor potential dumping sites. The processing power of these smartphones then allows AI-powered apps to analyse and interpret the video feed, sharing any relevant footage to the cloud and notifying relevant teams for further investigation.

There’s no longer the need to rely on a few bespoke cameras, have teams constantly monitoring heaps of video footage, or only take a reactive approach to illegal dumping issues. This technology, records, monitors and analyses sites in real-time, notifying the relevant people instantly when an issue occurs. Furthermore, its small form-factor makes it extremely portable and flexible, allowing you to move it quickly and effectively when needs arise.

What’s more, automation can improve enforcement. Processing video footage in real-time will enable governments and councils to penalise perpetrators rapidly. For example, the software could read the licence plate of a vehicle used by an illegal dumper, connect to a licence plate registry and automatically send a fine to the person associated with that vehicle. The video evidence is then sent to the cloud for retrieval in case of disputes.

It’s simple, cost-effective, flexible and intelligent and it will significantly increase the accessibility of illegal dumping technology for councils, governments, charities and waste businesses. The start of the future lies in app-based solutions. Those businesses, councils and charities that invest in this today will reap profound rewards tomorrow.