Don’t underestimate the power of garbage: In 1968, when 7,000 New York City sanitation workers went on strike for eight days, Mayor John Lindsay was met with such a mounting crisis in piles of trash that he called in the National Guard to haul it away. To this day, political careers can still be made or broken in the time it takes garbage trucks to clear the streets after a blizzard.
But what if garbage took care of itself? What if dumpsters could actually tell sanitation workers when they were full?
That’s the idea behind Enevo, a company that makes sensors to alert people to when garbage cans are reaching their limits. As of last week, the Finnish company has raised $11 million in investments. It’s installed some 5,000 sensors in pilot programs between Europe and the United States and has major plans for expansion on the East Coast.
Garbage can sensors don’t just prevent streets from getting smelly, Enevo CEO Fredrik Kekalainen explains. The purpose of having an Internet of trash is also to prevent wasted fuel in needless garbage collection rounds; by Enevo’s calculation, some pilot programs have saved waste management fleets up to 40% in fuel costs that would have otherwise been spent picking up near-empty dumpsters. Decreased fuel use also means decreased emissions, which would be critical in cities where fumes from diesel trucks contribute to high asthma rates.
“Our goal is really to change the way waste management and recycling operations have been done before to the demand-based way,” Kekalainen says. “A lot of public money is spent on inefficiencies, and at the same time we think it’s a no-brainer for many municipalities and organizations.”
Enevo’s sensors work with a number of materials, including both liquid and solid waste. The applications extend beyond garbage, too. Currently, the company’s signed contracts with organizations as diverse as clothing recycling bin networks to the military. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, for example, is running an Enevo pilot to gauge water levels in its subterranean wiring rooms to protect equipment from flooding.
At the same time, solid waste is a difficult business to break into. Sanitation routes are delicately timed ballets—waste management companies and municipalities don’t necessarily want to be told how to reorganize methods that have taken decades upon decades to perfect. Plus, every city’s different. Can sensors really tell sanitation departments how to do a better job?
Enevo’s head of U.S. operations, Markku Lento, acknowledges that some municipalities put up quite a fight to the idea. “We come along and say, forget what you’ve done the last 50 years, we have sensors that decide new routes every morning. That’s a big change,” Lento says.
Enevo’s still got quite a bit to prove, at least in the United States. In the meantime, though, you can follow the garbage sensors’ tweets here.