Somewhat of a local environmental legend in the Triangle Region of Denmark, Kim Ankjær Nielsen – Head of Waste Management at Fredericia Municipality – has been applying his study background in behavioural biology coupled with his experience in the waste industry to work towards developing a circular economy.
His next project? Digitalisation of Fredericia’s waste management systems and optimising routes for the collection of municipal waste.
WasteHero caught up with the down-to-earth and passionate Kim Ankjær Nielsen, ahead of the implementation of the WasteHero solution in Fredericia Municipality later this week.
Kim, thanks for taking the time to speak with WasteHero! Could you tell us about the journey that brought you to Fredericia Kommune as Head of Waste Management?
My ambition when it came to working life, was that in some way or another that I wanted to work with sustainability. When I was a boy, it was either being a professional football player or working with sustainability… and I didn’t become a professional football player.
It’s common for people in the waste management area to come from so many different backgrounds, and I’m one of them. I’m a biologist, I’m educated within everything that’s living, yet I work with everything that’s not living – materials and resources. But I’m a behavioural biologist. So that’s really something that turns me on in a way, is behaviour in the general sense.
I worked in a neighbouring municipality for five years with EU projects and national projects that contained a lot of behaviour, and sustainability is kind of an integrated part of working within that area. And then last summer, I was contacted by Fredericia and they had an open position as head of waste management. I was very happy with my former job, but I just thought that this was a very interesting challenge, so I accepted and here I am.
Could you tell me a little bit about what your role is like now?
I lead the municipal department, which is around 70 employees. We have two recycling stations and one landfill area that we own. We do a lot of the collection of the waste ourselves, primarily the recyclable waste. Then the waste for incineration and food waste is collected by a private operator that we hire.
In Denmark, the whole “new” way of sorting waste is not at all new here. It’s been decades that the people of Fredericia have been sorting their waste into a lot of different fractions. So in that sense, nothing’s changed here. But some things have to change, and that is primarily about digitalization.
“Some things have to change, and that is primarily about digitalization.”
So that is a core part of my task here as head of the department. To transform the department into something that reminds you of 2022, but also that looks further out into the future; what is the future when it comes to digitalization and waste management?
And do you have a certain philosophy towards your work and what you do?
Yeah, I sure do. [laughs]
I think a lot of my attitude towards being a leader is based on how not to do it. So when you’re an employee in your job, you watch leaders and directors and they perform a certain kind of behaviour in different situations and you kind of look at that and then you think, well, that, that was pretty clever or you think that was not really clever at all.
And to be fair, I think a lot of my way of working as a leader is, is based on my experience with how not to do it. So I’ve experienced a lot of leaders and former jobs that kind of just went on their own. They didn’t involve the employees, didn’t involve the citizens. And it often leads to… well I wouldn’t say disaster, but you kind of miss some holes in the road.
And so here the philosophy is that we are down to earth, combined with the fact that we are passionate about something. So for me, it could be environment, but for somebody else, it could be the economy or humans or the social sustainability part. Or it could be just performing good service for customers of our Reuse store, our second-hand store, or it could be a lot of things.
That’s the philosophy we’re trying to use here in the department, in the organization. And to be able to do that, we in the management have to be like that ourselves because if you’re not, then the employees will see right through you.
So that’s the foundation that we try to create. And honestly, we think only good things can come from that.
I care about digitalization. I care about sustainability, but nothing’s going to come of that if we don’t have employees who behaviorally want to do that. And so what we’ve learned already is that if we treat people nicely and we also have certain expectations for them that fit their profile, then sustainability, digitalization, the willingness to do that, it just comes automatically.
How did Fredericia deal with waste collection before starting the collaboration with WasteHero? And perhaps you can tell us a bit about the challenges that led you to look for a new solution?
I kind of mentioned this, the fact that the department was not really digitalized. I think at best we had things in Excel sheets. At worst, we had nothing. And in between, we had something in the minds of the drivers and other employees. So, it’s kind of a two-folded approach for us here.
“The department was not really digitalized. I think at best we had things in Excel sheets. At worst, we had nothing.”
First and foremost, we want to secure data. When I say data, it’s numbers, but it’s also ways of working with a machine or, you know, routines and stuff like that. So actually, our primary priority here is securing data. And with WasteHero, we secure data and not just that… we also have a way of utilizing the data that we get.
And obviously, we want to improve all the time and be more effective, but with our qualitative approach and in the sense that numbers are one thing, but if you leave out, let’s say as an example, taking 5 minutes to talk to an old lady who has a question about sorting waste, then it’s not really effective. You kind of screw up on another parameter.
Why did you finally choose Wastehero as the solution?
I think one can be a snob in many ways. And to be honest, personally, I hate working with software that is slow, grey colours, heavy…
Clunky is the word I like to use.
Yeah, great word. Netflix would never go through with a platform that looked like some municipal only grey-coloured, you know, piece of **** and we would never do so in our everyday life. We use platforms that are very good-looking, that are easy to use. We should do the same in our work life.
But for some mystical reason, we don’t. And I don’t have the answer to why. But we just feel like when we introduce new software to our employees, it has to be good looking. And to be honest, on the market today, there is only WasteHero. We did a market scan and were looking at the intuitive part, the appearance and of course, the functionalities. There was only one option, WasteHero.
We’ve seen so many more technological innovations in other industries, and it’s like waste management has been left behind, because perhaps it’s not such a sexy industry or so exciting.
And you’ve touched on a very important part for us, and we actually say this to both media and employees, that our mission here is to make waste management sexy. We hired a communication responsible employee last year. I’m not talking about her, [laughs], but her function is to try to help us make waste management sexy. Let’s make it cool.
So yeah, spot on with the sexiness. It’s just very important.
The implementation of the WasteHero solution is due to start next week. Could you tell us a bit more about what’s in store for Fredericia and what you’re most excited for?
What we’re most excited about was that some of our drivers said, “why don’t we just start tomorrow?” They said that earlier this week, which shows that they want to try this, they want to play with it. Our approach is actually let’s try and play with this, because from experience we know that when you introduce new systems, they don’t work 100% from day one.
You have dynamic maps you have graphs, routes, you have dashboards, you have the whole palette and over time, obviously, what we also want to get from it is that we become more effective in our maintenance team, that we optimize it constantly. But to begin with, it’s very important for us that our employees find it fun to work with WasteHero. So that’s just that our opening approach; let’s just try it out. And that’s what we were very excited about in the management was that our employees were very onboard with ‘let’s try it out!’.
It’s the beginning of something where we actually get our data digitalized, where we see them in a completely different way than an Excel sheet.
How is WasteHero going to make your workday and the workday of your colleagues easier?
A very down-to-earth example here is that our drivers sometimes don’t empty a container because it’s too full or it’s not sorted not well enough.
They used to not collect it. And then the people that use that container would call our service team and say, why didn’t you empty it?
And we say, it’s too full.
And they say, no, it’s not.
And then they have a picture and say it’s not full.
Then they [the drivers] obviously just took it away afterwards. So now with this [WasteHero] system, there’s an easy way for employees to just grab their cell phone and take a picture and then with one tap on the screen, can document that it’s too full and send it to our service team. So when our service team gets called up, they can just open the case right away.
Then you have the proof right there. So that would actually free our drivers from a lot of the times they have to go back because “the customer is always right”. Now we have a way of actually proving that they are not.
I think another major one is the fact that we have drivers and they are very skilled, but they are human. So sometimes they get sick, sometimes they find another job and then we have to put somebody else on the trucks and the vans. And those people are not as skilled because they don’t have the experience.
So with an iPad in the car, it tells you where you have to go, you don’t have to learn the routes over time, you’re just being told where to go. And that’s also something that our maintenance team leader said, that it takes around a year to learn the routes of collecting waste.
So by having an iPad in the car that tells you where to go, even I would know where to go.
Are there any other projects that you’re working on, centred in waste management or circular economy, at Fredericia?
We are trying to form projects based from the thought that it has to be easy to do the right thing. So we try to think about where citizens find it difficult.
We have an app where there is a guide for how to sort your waste and you have to write the certain type of waste that you have in your hand. But we’re working on something where you just scan the barcode and in the future, where you just take a picture of it. So you have artificial intelligence that tells you that this is a ketchup bottle.
It’s a lot about our communication, where we try to tell people how to be more circular.
Also at the moment we have a biodiversity project, so we have a large area here at our office and the recycling station, where we have some green areas that used to be just grass. Now we try to bring in old trees that have been taken down. We plant different flowers and try to remember the part about biodiversity which sometimes gets forgotten when we talk about circular economy, for example. Otherwise, it’s a lot about digitalization at the moment.
Is there anything that excites you or concerns you about the future of waste management?
I think it’s what excites me is the fact that for years, the waste management area has not been a frontrunner when it comes to digitalisation, when it comes to the user-friendliness of systems, when it comes to including citizens, politicians and employees.
And so I think it’s just awesome to be part of the time where waste management is not simply just landfill/incineration/recycling, but now looking even further up in the waste hierarchy, at the re-use and prevention, and doing that both in practice but also with communication and cooperation.
For someone like me who has always been looking for a job where I, in some sense, could sense work with sustainability – I think 15, 20 years back, this area would not have fulfilled my expectation or needs. But today, it most certainly does. So I think being a part of this area today where the awareness is so huge with climate and sustainability, the social sustainability, the circular economy, biodiversity. I mean we have different projects that each tap into these different fields.
It’s a very giving area.
So to round it off, if you could share one key message with your peers in the municipal waste management industry, what would it be?
Let’s make waste management sexy. I think from today’s talk that would be awesome to finish off with. Together, let’s make waste management sexy.