As part of its ongoing efforts in “Building Tomorrow,” Volvo CE has partnered with professional futurists to gather their forecasts for the industrial industries. Futurists forecast the coming trends in science, technology and business. They help companies understand how the innovations of today will impact the industries of the future.
David Zach and Glen Hiemstra — known for their work with dozens of innovative Fortune 500 companies — provided their forecasts for the waste management and recycling industries. These sectors should see sweeping changes over the next 20-40 years, as the world will move towards a more circular economy and companies seek to minimize pollution, preserve the environment and better utilize natural resources.
“While consumers will want to reduce the use of non-recyclable materials, companies will have more responsibility over the entire lifecycles of their products and the materials used to make them, creating a more circular economy of goods,” Zach says.
This means that companies will offer more services that help their customers prolong the lifecycle of goods through maintenance and uptime measures, for example. They will also have a hand in what will be done with those goods when lifecycles end.
Some countries are already mandating that certain industries must accept products for recycling and reuse, but in general, as consumers seek to do business with companies that prioritize sustainability, many companies will make these moves voluntarily.
“This will be about producing less waste as opposed to just thinking about reuse and recycling,” Hiemstra says. “It will have us rethinking how we move things around in terms of transporting goods and the containers they’re in. This is an ever-growing business and it will be one of the biggest in the future.”
Much of the focus for the waste and recycling industries will be on cities. As more people move to metropolises and urbanization increases, getting food and materials into cities and then transporting the waste and recycling back out of them will become one of the largest industries on the planet, and it will make use of innovative technologies to generate efficiency and value.
The vehicles that we use to collect waste and recycling will be fully electric, which will not only reduce emissions, but reduce noise, too. This means that collections can happen while people are asleep, and that noise pollution won’t disturb people in hospitals or schools.
Fewer emissions and less noise will also enable more frequent waste and recycling collections, which means that waste and recycling plants can process materials in smaller units, improving their efficacy and logistical efficiency. This will make it easier and more efficient to reinsert materials into product streams.
Remote-controlled and autonomous equipment will also have a major role to play. Humans will be able to avoid the dirty work of hauling garbage and sorting it by piloting a simulator that resides in a far more pleasant environment, such as an office building. And while autonomous vehicles are already beginning to play a role in waste management, haulers and trucks won’t be the only self-driving machines in our cities.
“Waste and recycling bins themselves will become fully electric and autonomous. They will charge with solar power throughout the day, then they’ll drive themselves to the end of city streets or neighborhood blocks where they will be collected by a larger, autonomous hauler,” Hiemstra says.
Upon arrival at the waste and recycling plants, robots that have cameras for eyes will use artificial intelligence to separate the waste. These new types of robots will “eat” some of the materials and use them for fuel. This will include plastics and other matter than can be compressed or melted down to their raw goods state, while other materials will be set aside for reuse.
The move toward remote-controlled equipment will “gamify” the collection and sorting of materials, too. An improvement in work conditions will attract new talent to the industry that will lead to further innovation, as the work becomes both more scientific and video game-like at once.
A hauler or truck could be operated by someone in an office building via a simulator. This person would use the simulator to control machines that manipulate the waste, making the work appears like a game. On screen, the graphics are exciting, the numbers rise, and awards are being won. Workers could attempt to break their high score and perhaps see a pay bonus when they do.
“Young people are more understanding of gamification, but everyone would like to have a sense of ‘Why am I doing this?’” Zach says.
In this manner, companies will seek to gamify recycling, creating targets around the sorting of materials. New machines that accept recyclables will let customers see exactly what those materials are going to be used for in the future. For example, a machine that accepts water bottles might show how the material will be used to make fabric.
“The goal is to increase that behavior with people and organizations with incentives,” Zach says. “It is creating positive incentives, but also introducing an element of fun to the process.”