Trash of the future: how digital waste management is helping Czechs to recycle more

Czechia is not one of the countries that ranks very highly compared to fellow EU member states such as Germany, Austria and Belgium when it comes to recycling. With ambitious EU recycling targets set for the next decade, Czechia still has a long way to go – but a few innovative companies and municipalities are leading the way with digital waste solutions.

Photo: Nicolas Raymond,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0

Recycling rates vary vastly between different European countries. According to figures from the European Environment Agency, in 2017 the amount of municipal waste that was recycled ranged from 68% in Germany to 0.3% in Serbia. Czechia still ranks among the EU countries that recycle less than 50% of their municipal waste, meaning they did not meet the EU’s target of recycling half of all household rubbish by 2020. (According to Statista, the actual figure in 2020 was 33.8%.)

Nevertheless, huge progress has been made since the country joined the EU in 2004, when less than 10% of its trash was recycled. And there are several companies and local mayors in the country trying to keep that momentum going – and to take it even further.

Robin Liška is the director of the company JRK, which aims to improve and modernise waste management in Czech towns and cities, with the ultimate goal of reducing the overall amount of waste produced.

“The best waste is waste that isn’t created in the first place. And that's why we try to help municipalities to find ways to motivate and teach their citizens how to prevent the generation of waste, to make it as little as possible.”

Robin Liška | Photo: Czech Television

The company offers a number of products and services to help with achieving this aim – one of which is the ECONIT waste registration system. One of the key steps in optimising waste management is digitalising it, says Liška.

“The registration of waste is a very important step in the modernization of waste management, because municipalities get accurate data about waste and do not have to rely on assumptions. Thanks to our registration system, which has undergone many years of development, municipalities can get a complete overview of waste levels, and they can even introduce various systems to incentivise citizens to sort their rubbish and generate less household waste.”

The ECONIT software system collects data about waste in a particular town or city, which is available online to every municipality and, potentially also to every citizen and waste collection company, if the municipality decides so.

The data is collected using hardware that sends it to the online software system. The hardware can be used to measure not only the volume, weight and level of fullness of waste containers, but also the condition of the waste (e.g., plastic bottles that haven’t been flattened, or whether the waste has started to decompose).

Photo: ECONIT / YouTube

Exactly which hardware is used depends on what the municipality wants. For example, it is possible to connect the ECONIT software system to a weighing system on the actual collection truck itself.

“In the case of manual data collection, then garbage trucks are equipped with a simple QR code reader, and during waste collection, before emptying the container, the operators just scan the QR code label that is affixed to it. In the case of automatic data collection, the waste containers are fitted with an electronic chip, and this chip enables the container to be automatically registered when it is emptied.”

Waste can also be collected door to door from individual households. Collection companies take away bags of paper, plastic or glass directly from the doors of individual houses on designated days. The only thing households have to do apart from sorting their rubbish is to stick a QR code on the sorted garbage bag or container, uniquely generated by the system. Every citizen can see in the system how much waste they produce, and can receive a discount on their waste collection fees for their efforts.

The ECONIT system can also be used at waste collection yards. Citizens receive individual waste cards, which they take with them to the collection yard together with their waste. The cards are used to identify the waste as belonging to a given household. When the waste is collected, the collection yard operator scans the card using a mobile terminal. If house-to-house waste registration is already in place in the municipality, the waste delivered to the collection yard is credited to each citizen's waste account.

Photo: ECONIT / YouTube

One Czech municipality that has made use of this service is Zádveřice-Raková near Zlín, in the south-east of Czechia, a town of around 1500 inhabitants. Mayor Radovan Karola says that he was motivated to make use of the digital waste management system because he wanted to make his town’s inhabitants aware of the problem of waste.

“I wanted think a little bit about the environment, we have collective responsibility for what we do with our rubbish. We saw that if we didn’t implement some kind of registration system, our citizens wouldn’t be able to see how much general waste they produced versus paper or glass.”

And since the system was implemented three years ago, Mayor Karola says they have seen some tangible results – the inhabitants of his town have become motivated to recycle more.

“The frequency of plastic recycling collection has been increased – before it was once a month, now it’s twice a month. The amount of plastic collected for recycling is higher.”

Now the municipality recycles not only plastic, but also paper and glass, which wasn’t the case previously. Mr. Karola says that reactions from the population have been positive – people have learnt to recycle more as a result of introducing the digital system and thinks that people have been motivated to do it because it’s actually easier for them to do it this way than taking their waste out to big containers.

“People learnt when the collection dates are, because it’s on the web and on social media. They don’t have to take their trash anywhere – they just put it in front of their house and our garbage collectors pick it up. So I would say that our citizens learnt to do it because it’s comfortable for them.”

If the example of Zádveřice-Raková is anything to go by, then perhaps Czechia may be on track to reach the EU’s next target of recycling 65% of all packaging by 2025.