There’s a story often repeated in business schools and advice books about American Airlines. Nearly 30 years ago, the giant airliner found that by removing a single olive from each of their first-class salads, they would save $40,000 a year.

The cute anecdote contains an element of truth for any business – that small costs in the margins add up and addressing them sensibly can have major impacts on the bottom line. Mary Nitschke (pictured), the VP of sustainability at RealPage Inc., believes she has an equivalent to that olive for the multifamily space. It’s a strategy that hinges around training a camera on a building’s dumpster.

Nitschke explained that multifamily units are facing a myriad of waste-related costs that can be trimmed with a camera and some AI-enabled garbage recognition technology. Poorly sorted recycling can result in thousands of dollars in monthly fines for a multifamily unit. The sheer volume of un-collapsed cardboard being thrown into dumpsters, too, causes huge problems for multifamily buildings. As residents get their lives shipped to them via Amazon, those empty boxes are leaving huge pockets of air in the middle of a dumpster. They create what Nitschke calls ‘artificial fullness,’ resulting in a perceived need for more dumpsters, more space, or more maintenance staff to deal with a volume of trash that isn’t there. Nitschke’s cameras on dumpsters approach, she explained, is about bringing light into the darkest part of any multifamily building.

“What the camera does is it provides visibility into what’s happening within the dumpster and in the waste enclosure,” Nitschke said. “We’ve engineered the camera to recognize 11 different material types. When it’s programmed into a recycling dumpster it takes pictures and registers trash that shouldn’t be there. It then kicks out a work order to the facilities system and the maintenance team can proactively resolve the issue before the hauler either issues a fine or refuses to pick up the dumpster.”

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Focusing on the example of un-collapsed cardboard, Nitschke explained that a dumpster might appear full when anywhere between 40% and 60% of its space is being taken up by air. It’s a growing problem, she noted, given a decade-long push for package lockers in multifamily housing and the widespread shift to e-commerce exacerbated by the pandemic.

The cameras deal with this issue by flagging obvious issues like un-collapsed cardboard as it gets thrown in the dumpster. Maintenance crews can then deal with the issue upfront, rather than sifting through a whole dumpster full of waste at the end of the day, or having to clean up the trash that inevitably falls off an overfilled dumpster. While the process might seem labor-intensive for maintenance crews, Nitschke noted that the proactive nature of the solution makes for far less work down the road.

Nitschke believes her solution is worth pursuing now because we’re currently in a “perfect dumpster storm.” China, our biggest buyer of recyclable waste, has been pushing for cleaner recycling since 2017, which has resulted in heavier fines for multifamily buildings from their waste managers. At the same time, corporate and government sustainability goals are adding huge incentives to recycling, and disincentives to flawed recycling. California, for example, has a mandate that 50% of multifamily waste needs to be diverted into recycling or compost. It will be ratcheting that up to 75% in coming year.

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From a mortgage professional’s perspective, Nitschke emphasized a growing consumer preference for green living. As multifamily buildings look to recover and outcompete in the post-pandemic economy, it may play a crucial role. From a bottom-line perspective, too, she has noted that, depending on the property, the camera solution has reduced waste costs anywhere from 10% to 37%.

“In the absence of light, darkness prevails, and that’s what’s happened in the waste industry for multifamily. We have no visibility into what is happening in those enclosures,” Nitschke said. “The camera is a simple thing but creating visibility into an area that’s never had visibility creates a substantial amount of opportunity for an owner.”