Stay-At-Homers Fueling an Apartment Waste Management Problem – and a Solution


Apartment waste management isn't something generally on the front burner at multifamily companies. But as waste management firms are picking up less trash at the nation’s businesses during the pandemic, what’s not in bins at workplaces is showing up in residential locations, creating multifamily waste management headaches.

Working from home may continue for a while, even after the pandemic, which means waste and recyclable materials are likely to keep piling up faster at apartment buildings.

Accelerating a trend that was already evident

Before COVID-19, remote workforces were already seeing spikes in productivity. And when managers required employees to work from home they found that efficiency didn’t slide. Many say productivity has remained at pre-pandemic levels, or even gone up. It's expected that some of the COVID-19 shift to working at home will remain after the pandemic ends. That means stay-at-home workers will be dumping more garbage and recyclables at their places of residence.

The U.S. has indeed been generating more household garbage, recyclables and bulky waste in residential areas. In some areas, trash volumes have risen 15-30% as residents pass idle hours with home projects or clean up around their homes. Even as economies have opened, apartment residents are feeding the dumpsters more regularly.

And additional trash − fueled from more online purchases, take-out dining refuse and personal protective equipment waste − are creating mounds of garbage and recyclables, straining landfills and the recycling chain.

Waste management companies are dealing with a tidal wave of plastic waste, a byproduct of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer bottles. Single-use items like plastic forks, knives, spoons, plates and Styrofoam containers are adding to the mix.

Statista, an online research firm, notes that the amount of plastics found in products in U.S. municipal solid waste streams is on the upswing.

More trash being noticed in multifamily

The effects are rippling out to include apartment trash and recycling dumpsters. The number of visits a resident makes to the trash enclosure has increased.

As the trash piles up, so do costs for multifamily properties.

Apartment waste management and recycling, however, often is overlooked, says RealPage Vice President of Sustainability Mary Nitschke.

Proper trash disposal issues are commonly undetected compared to other maintenance necessities, she explains, causing a silent drain on operational budgets. Trash volumes often are miscalculated and properties pay for unnecessary pickups by waste management contractors.

“As an industry, we treat trash as back of house when in reality, it is not. Residents visit the trash enclosures more frequently than our club houses,” she says.

Pressure on multifamily operations

Property managers are now faced with managing more trash, which adds pressure to a part of multifamily operations that already is expensive.

Properties typically pay full price for haul-off services that take away about half the contracted amount because dumpsters aren’t full. Among other things, un-collapsed cardboard boxes from all those online purchases creates artificial fullness, increasing costs and making for untidy trash enclosures.

According to RealPage, the average apartment property wastes thousands of dollars per year on hauling fees for dumpsters that are only 46% full.

Also, because residents and site teams are often confused by recycling requirements and place items in the wrong bins, communities incur contamination fees. In some areas, mingling of waste and recyclables is punishable by fines of up to $200 per occurrence.

Increased awareness of apartment waste management

Compology CEO and co-founder Jason Gates says there is more awareness now than ever because apartment residents are seeing first-hand the volume of trash they generate.

“Since the shelter-in-place orders that were put out in 2020, the number one thing that we've noticed has been increased awareness about waste and recycling,” he said on the RealPage webcast “Let’s Talk Trash: Utilizing Technology to Modernize Trash Management.” “And the awareness at home, I think, is translating into awareness in the commercial setting.”

He added that multifamily managers want to understand how to reduce the amount of trash that goes to landfills and, at the same time, pay less for recycling.

“We're seeing a lot of folks proactively stand up and say, ‘I want to use tools in order to understand my waste stream and be able to ultimately reduce the amount of waste that I'm sending to landfills and improve my recycling rates,’ ” he said.

Reducing contamination of recyclables is one way that the recycling ecosystem can operate more efficiently and keep property and resident costs lower.

Lights! Camera! Trash!

Compology has been in the waste and recycling industry for nearly eight years. The company's technology, born in a New York neighborhood garage, employs AI-powered cameras to remotely monitor what and how much goes into dumpsters and recycle bins.

In partnership with Compology, the cameras are being incorporated into the RealPage Waste Management Solution. An exclusive in multifamily trash management, the solution determines when a container is full and ready for pickup, and also if trash has been mixed with recycling.

By monitoring fill levels, properties can save thousands of dollars per year in waste-hauling fees associated with unnecessary trips. Also, alerts notify property maintenance teams of recycling contamination.

Compology’s cameras take pictures of dumpster contents four times daily, distinguishing recycling waste from trash and compost material and reporting on fill levels. They can quickly identify seven different categories of content and contamination, and property maintenance teams receive alerts when, for example, inappropriate materials have been placed in a recycling container or unflattened cardboard boxes are hogging space.

It’s a solution that has great potential for operators, residents and waste management companies.

“I can see this technology being used two different ways in our industry,” Nitschke said. “One, I could see operators using it to eliminate contamination and reduce the number of pickups. But I could also see the haulers themselves using it to measure how full the containers are and if contamination has been resolved as well.”

Saving money and leaving a better sustainability footprint

The solution saves operators significant money and helps apartment communities strengthen their green contributions to the environment.

Contamination fees can be reduced by up to 80% with savings adding up to $1,800 per dumpster per year. Owners’ costs can be lowered by more than $100 per unit, and the property is better positioned to truly contribute to sustainable efforts.

“The beauty of what we are doing is that it saves properties a lot of money while also saving the environment,” Gates said. “So you’re making everyone happy at the same time: the renters, the folks in the front office who want to advertise a green property, and the back-office people looking for ways to save money.”

Learn more about RealPage’s new apartment waste management solution here.

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