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The smart city and the edible spoon: Improve sustainability with IoT

A decade ago, spurred by his concerns over the amount of waste plastic utensils created, an entrepreneurial Indian scientist had this idea: Why put in the landfill what you can (nutritiously) put in your stomach? So Narayana Peesapaty decided to invent an edible spoon, and last year his creation finally gained traction thanks to a viral video and his considerable determination.

There is much that the smart city can learn from this venture.

Consider that in 2014, according to an EPA fact sheet, Americans produced 33.2 million tons of plastic; and though around a third of that was recycled, that’s mountains of waste going into landfills. While Peesapaty’s approach, though admirable, won’t scale to address the sustainability needs of entire cities, it is an object lesson in how those issues can be addressed in — you might say — bite-sized chunks.

The internet of things will empower smart cities to achieve widespread sustainability in those discrete chunks. Indeed, it is in the very nature of IoT-driven smart solutions to reduce waste, eliminate unnecessary infrastructure and create cost savings in the process.

The key to this sustainability is the networking capacity of IoT sensors and the ability to analyze and act upon the data they provide, both of which produce a cascade of benefits. Consider what can be accomplished simply with networked waste receptacles:

  • Because they are discoverable with mobile devices, residents and visitors to cities can be directed to the nearest to either dispose of or recycle their waste.
  • The receptacles can monitor their own capacities and alert the waste collection agency when they are nearly full.
  • The agency can then tailor collection routes to only service those receptacles, reducing the amount of fuel consumed by trucks.
  • Since the trucks can be equipped with sensors as well, they can automatically deliver waste and recyclables to the appropriate processing facility when they’re full, eliminating wasted trips.
  • Because the system helps divert recyclables from the waste stream, it extends the usable life of a landfill.

This domino effect on sustainability can be replicated within almost any smart solution. Smart lighting and utility metering reduces demand on electricity, saving money and allowing larger populations to be served without increased generating capacity. Electronic ticketing not only reduces paper waste, but by eliminating ticket vending machines allows for unhindered access to transit services, reducing journey times and energy costs.

There are also more passive ways IoT allows smart cities and businesses to affect sustainability and meet environmental regulations. Air quality can be monitored and adjustments made or alerts sent out as necessary. Sites where illegal dumping has occurred can be monitored remotely, and law enforcement alerted when more takes place. Utility usage in public buildings and other infrastructure can be tracked, providing data that can be used to determine where to invest in energy efficiency, or possibly alerting to situations like leaking water pipes or unauthorized access.

Key in all of this is the fact that sustainability benefits are frequently ancillary to other IoT implementations — they’re a bonus, in other words. Networked smart meters are not generally installed by utilities because they will cut down on fuel costs since no one has to drive around reading them, for example — they’re installed for the ability to holistically monitor the system enables more rapid response to problems and more effective maintenance.

Edible spoons are an imaginative approach to a serious sustainability challenge; they are, in their own way, a smart solution. But when cities apply IoT to the larger challenges facing them, they will broadly improve sustainability across the urban ecosystem while implementing solutions that improve the urban experience.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.