The electric battery-powered Trombia Free
With litter levels rising on Britain’s streets since the start of the pandemic, Chris Elliott finds out how new technology can help councils reduce the problem.
Keeping our streets clean and free of litter is a tough job, even at the best of times – and it’s got a lot harder since the pandemic began. Lockdowns have generally meant fewer people out and about in town and city centres, but, inevitably, waste and recycling collections have suffered disruption.
In some places, the problem of litter has switched to parks and other open spaces, as Covid-19 rules transformed the way people socialise. During spells of warm weather, for example, thousands of people have flocked to seafront locations, such as Brighton, leaving behind mountains of rubbish.
Environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy fears a littering epidemic is on the way as the UK moves forward after restrictions are lifted. A spokesperson says: ‘When previous lockdowns eased – particularly the first lockdown – there was a dramatic increase in littering, largely because the only places people could go were parks and beaches, as everything else was shut. Local authorities reported having to spend up to £150K extra last year managing the excess litter, something they should not have to do when resources are already so stretched.
‘We’re anticipating increased litter levels again, as millions of us will be holidaying in the UK with foreign travel severely limited.’
What is being done to meet that challenge, especially on the technological front?
Environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy fears a littering epidemic is on the way as the UK moves forward after restrictions are lifted
Manchester City Council has teamed up with Herefordshire-based Helping Hand Environmental to run a network of what it calls ‘litter-picking drop-ins’, which focus on the need for social distancing and minimal contact. Drop-in stations have been set up in a number of parks – tables complete with hand sanitiser, PPE and litter-picking equipment arranged individually, so volunteers need only touch the items they use. It has been a big hit, and waste management giant Biffa is now adding its weight, providing resources to promote recycling at the drop-ins.
Nottingham City Council has also launched a street-cleaning initiative using Helping Hand equipment. Until the pandemic struck, the authority’s litter-clearance operatives worked in teams, trundling heavy barrows around the city centre. Now, they’re using Street Boss lightweight carts with integrated litter-picking tools, enabling them to work solo.
A council spokesperson says: ‘This system will help to revolutionise street cleansing as we know it – increasing productivity and safer mobile working, and recovering the unit cost back in eight weeks in operational savings. And the risk of sustaining an injury from lifting heavy barrows has been reduced, with staff reporting a 100 per cent reduction in back-strain complaints.’
In Glasgow, another partnership is helping to win the waste war. Bin supplier Egbert Taylor has installed 12 American-designed, high-tech bins in Buchanan Street, one of the city’s busiest shopping thoroughfares. They replace more than two dozen standard bins, which, because of the huge footfall in the area, the council was having to empty hundreds of times a week.
The new bins, called Bigbelly, have solar-powered compactors inside them, which automatically squash down the waste. Sensors provide real-time status updates on the fill level of each unit and, when ready to be emptied, they alert the council’s street-cleaning team. The compactors increase each bin’s capacity by up to eight times and, when Glasgow first trialled the system, collection visits were cut by 90 per cent.
New tech on the block
Trying something new is a difficult sell to councils, especially when funding for innovation is not always available. But several other local authorities in the UK have opted to give Bigbelly a go, including Aberdeen, Chester, Rugby and Croydon.
Emmett Reidy, business development director at Egbert Taylor, says: ‘The cost of installing a Bigbelly unit typically starts at £4,500, although this depends on factors such as the volume of units being procured, the number of optional extras, and the level of warranty.
‘Our role doesn’t end once we’ve installed the units. We continually work with councils to ensure they are getting the most out of their investment.’
The firm is now rolling out a version of the bin called Telebelly, which has an integrated pole and antenna to give enhanced wireless services in the area where the bin is sited. The aim is to help telecommunication firms deploy a faster, more reliable service without large-scale mast installations.
For road sweeping, most councils continue to favour brush-and-suction trucks, which have undergone many technological improvements. Bucher Municipal, for example, has developed Smoothflow technology, which, it says, provides increased pick-up and uses less power. It has also pioneered ‘dust retention’ technology to remove potentially harmful particles from the road surface.
Steve Douglas, Bucher Municipal’s head of product management and marketing for truck-mounted sweepers, says the real game-changing technology trends come under the headings of electrification and digitalisation.
For example, he says, the firm’s V65e electric truck-mounted road sweeper – with a 200kWh lithium-ion battery pack serving both the chassis and all sweeping functions – can sweep for an eight-hour shift with zero emissions at point of use. The manufacturer adds that a ‘significant percentage’ of the machine – including the stainless steel – is manufactured from recycled or renewable materials.
Digitally, the company offers telematics packages, enabling remote analysis of machine location, machine and operator performance, and service condition.
Also, there is now a sizeable range of small street vacuum cleaners on the market, such as ePowerTrucks’ electric Glutton. It has an integrated power washer, so an operator can not only use it to suck up rubbish, but also deep clean pavements afterwards.
A Finnish firm hoping to break into the UK market with a robot sweeper is Trombia Technologies, which has created the 3.5 metre-long Trombia Free, trialled in Helsinki. According to the firm, the electric battery-powered machine uses less than 15 per cent of the power required by normal brushing machines.
Are councils doing enough to put forward-thinking schemes to tackle street waste at the top of their agendas? The Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (Adept) has been asking councils to participate in regular surveys of how their waste-collection services have been operating during the pandemic. The move has been backed by the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, the Local Government Association (LGA), and the National Association of Waste Disposal Officers.
The first survey, in March last year, discovered that street sweeping and litter services were not operating normally in most places, with 80 per cent of authorities reporting disruption and, in some cases, suspensions. The situation has improved markedly since then, with the latest published survey, in March this year, showing only 18 per cent of councils experiencing disruption.
Steve Palfrey, chair of Adept’s waste group, says: ‘In the early stages of the pandemic, staffing levels shrank because of infection and self-isolation. Councils reallocated staff to essential collections and reduced or suspended other services, while working from home decreased the need for frequent street cleansing.
‘As staffing levels increased because of reliable testing, the need for self-isolation reduced, and councils have reinstated and adjusted services to meet increasing demand.’
The LGA, which represents 327 England councils, says many have worked out innovative approaches to tackle littering, citing the introduction of Bigbelly solar bins as an example. But it emphasises manufacturers and the public have a duty to help, too.
Councillor David Renard, the LGA’s environment spokesperson, says: ‘Responsibility for clearing up litter lies with the person dropping it or leaving it behind – but it’s time the producers of frequently littered packaging took some responsibility by contributing to the cost of cleaning and disposal.’
We will have to wait and see whether the introduction of the packaging extended producer responsibility might help the situation by offering incentives to prevent waste at source, promote more sustainable product design, and support recycling and resource-management goals.
This article first appeared in the July/August issue of Circular.