SmartTrash: Solving Sri Lanka’s Waste Management Problem through Technological Innovation

The Meethotamulla Garbage Dump

After the Meethotamulla Garbage dump collapse that happened last year, waste management has become one of the most talked about problems in Sri Lanka.

Whilst politicians and governmental authorities tried their luck at solving the problem, I chose to use technology to do the very same.

Initially I wanted to build a smart bin and a companion mobile application that would make the job of managing and disposing of the user’s waste easier. I also wanted to track local garbage trucks and alert users when one was nearby, but I let go of this idea soon after hearing that a developer I knew had failed in his attempt to do this. He told me that soon after he setup the tracking devices on the trucks, it went offline: the drivers had removed and sold the devices the very next day.

Nevertheless, when attempting to build my initial idea, I realized that the product I was creating was utterly useless. It had no proper focus and was incapable of solving the problem. I continued to look into recycling centers and other solutions to the problem to realize that although many believe that there is a lack of waste management infrastructure, there is plenty in the country already.

Recycling is one of the most efficient ways to manage waste as it mostly eliminates the problem and also has an economic benefit. Most small time recyclers in Sri Lanka are given recyclable waste for small sums of money. These recyclers then recycle the waste and obtain a profit by selling the recycled materials. This means that in an ideal scenario recycling will not only solve the problem of waste management, but will also increase employment and contribute to the Sri Lankan economy.

Most Sri Lankans are aware of these small time recyclers or patthara bothal karayo, who pay small sums of money for recyclable waste. However, most people either don’t know their neighborhood recycler or care to take the time to prepare and hand over their waste to these recyclers.

My solution is built to make full use of the existing recycling community and boost the waste economy. In order to solve the two problems mentioned above, my solution is built with two main goals: to increase accessibility and to incentivize correct waste disposal. It is a platform that bridges the gap between the ordinary Sri Lankan and the nearby recycler.

In order to increase accessibility to recycling facilities, all recycling centers onboard the platform are mapped in the application and directions to the nearest bin from the user’s current location are also provided. Nevertheless, increasing accessibility isn’t enough to encourage irresponsible Sri Lankans to take the time to separate and dispose their waste responsibly. An incentive is also required.

Although most recyclers use a few notes of spare change to encourage people to recycle, the SmartTrash platform uses a digital rewards scheme. These digital rewards break down into two categories: eZCash rewards and internet data rewards. Essentially, when the disposal is made to the recycling center instead of providing the user with some spare change, the monetary value of that change is provided through a digital reward, which increases the convenience and value of the reward itself. This also allows the SmartTrash platform to generate revenue by taking a small commission from each disposal.

Since initially, I did not want to focus much on handling many different recyclers and educating them on the platform, I approached the Sustainability team at Dialog with a proposal to join the platform with their already existing Electronic Waste collection program. Since they were looking to revamp their program amidst declining disposal in recent years, they agreed gladly. They were also keen on providing an internet data reward of 100MB since it benefitted them by increasing the engagement on their network.

Dialog’s E-Waste collection program didn’t have any rewards scheme unlike the small time recyclers I initially had in mind for the SmartTrash platform. Instead, they had bins at their outlets all over the country, which allows for their customers to drop off their electronic waste similar to a regular bin found at any other public location.

However, since the success of my solution relied mainly on incentivizing the disposal process, I had to somehow integrate the digital rewards scheme onto their bins. I solved this problem by using QR Code technology, which is essentially an easier to use barcode. A QR Code is printed on the bins and when the user disposes waste into the bin, he/she scans the QR code using the mobile app and receives the entitled digital reward. One challenge with this process is that the QR code can be scanned and the reward can be obtained without actually disposing any E-Waste.

This problem could potentially be solved by making the bin smarter by attaching a weighing scale that measures the difference in weight before and after the disposal or by having a camera take a picture of the disposed items and process the contents of the image. However, both of these solutions have high implementation and maintenance costs that made them seem illogical in the long run. Instead a more low tech solution of limiting a user to one reward redemption per day was implemented. Furthermore, the SmartTrash platform also checks the users location during redemption in order to avoid scammers from redeeming pictures of the actual QR code from other locations.

The SmartTrash app is available for download now on the Google Play Store (See Link Below) and is coming to the Apple App Store in the very near future. However, the new Dialog bins with QR codes are still in the process of being rolled out and will be completed in the upcoming months.

Since the platform only supports E-Waste disposal for now, I highly encourage recyclers to join the platform as it will increase the reach of your business and also increase the popularity of the platform. If you are a recycler, who would like to join the platform, or you have any comments or suggestions please contact me at anuda@live.com or fill in the ‘I want to be a collector form’ on the app. And if you are a Sri Lankan, I strongly encourage you to pick up your phone, download SmartTrash and dispose your waste responsibly to earn a 100MB data reward and help your countrymen while your at it!