In the early 2000s, the UK was exporting 200,000 tonnes of plastic and 500,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard to China each year. This in turn meant a shortage of feedstock for the domestic recycling sector. Since 1 January 2018, the Chinese government has restricted the imports of low-grade plastics and paper from Europe and the USA. As a consequence, the recycling sector in the UK now faces significant capacity constraints and investment challenges.
While China's decision is somewhat precipitous it sits alongside well-publicised concerns about ocean contamination by plastics – microplastics in particular – the rise of the circular economy, the shift of investment away from hydrocarbon assets and an increased interest in the bio-economy. Taken together, where do these leave industrial and commercial waste management and recycling?
It's a £400bn sector globally with some big players and lots of smaller operators traders and processors, as well as a significant informal sector in developing countries. While recycling rates vary widely across the world, most waste is still sent to landfill or dumps; the World Bank also estimates that urban waste will increase to 3.4bn tonnes by 2050.
The range and volume of recycling feedstock collected, moved, sold, processed or disposed of by waste management generates a correspondingly significant volume and velocity of data. The only problem is that this data has not tended to be properly collected; neither has the sector used data to improve efficiency or even develop new business models. But that is now beginning to change.
This challenge of collecting data and improving the way we track waste from source to disposal or processing has been picked up by the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
It recognises the potential for technology to enable smarter approaches to waste regulation and inform policy-making across the devolved administrations. It also reflects the fact that UK-wide waste and recycling strategies have evolved over the past few years to improve resource efficiency, reduce dependence on single-use materials and extract much more value from waste.
The concept of the circular economy is also gaining traction with a growing number of public- and private-sector organisations.
With greater scarcity of raw materials and thus higher costs, many recognise the need to optimise use and recovery of products and assets beyond their intended lifespan.
Responses include designing products for disassembly, devising new commercial models such as leasing and sharing, or ensuring that waste and by-products are more effectively recycled. Better data on waste materials, products and assets is required to inform new business models based on the circular economy.
If the UK is to meet increasing demand for recycling it will need to develop better ways of collecting and processing the data associated with waste disposal
As a consequence, working through the GovTech Catalyst programme, DEFRA challenged technology and advisory companies in 2018 to define what a smart waste tracking system looks like. Such a system would need to accommodate all 200m tonnes of waste generated in the UK annually, including household, municipal, commercial, industrial, hazardous and construction materials. A further requirement was the ability to tackle waste crime, in the form of fly-tipping or illegal exports of waste, which is estimated to cost the national economy around £600m.
Each year, there are about 23m movements or transactions of waste from one party to another in the UK. This material is handled by 100,000 registered waste carriers and processors, and stored, processed or disposed of at 100,000 licensed waste sites. Extrapolate these numbers globally and this represents a highly complex system of materials measurements and movements –at local, national and international scales.
One response comes from the Ordnance Survey (OS), and Topolytics, a big data service, and uses mapping and spatial intelligence to analyse waste generation and movement globally. It does this by collating data from multiple sources, qualifying and checking this before applying data science and machine learning to generate analysis and reporting in its WasteMap platform.
The collaboration between the OS and Topolytics has generated more effective protocols for collating and qualifying inconsistent addressing data. The latter remains a challenge when dealing with licensed waste sites, ancillary sites and the many sources of waste, including companies, public-sector bodies and local authorities, as well as known deficiencies in the way waste is defined and measured.
Data science and geospatial analytics can then increase confidence in data on waste movements, and consequently inform better commercial and environmental outcomes.
Specifically, WasteMap generates insights that help waste producers, waste processors, recyclers, investors and policy-makers.
Topolytics operates in the broader, £1.5tr cleantech sector, which has traditionally been dominated by large-scale investments in green energy infrastructure. This is now changing, and the buzzwords are the internet of things, big data, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. This is also true of the emerging waste-tech or smart-waste sector, which is valued at about £1.5bn globally.
The first wave of investment concentrated on the so-called internet of bins – sensor-based systems enabling more efficient collection and movement of waste.
There have also been advances in robotics and sensing systems that automate waste recognition and sorting at recycling and recovery facilities. Companies will continue to innovate in these areas, and they are being joined by another wave of innovators focusing on the use of AI and analytics to encourage more re-use of materials.
Topolytics' data aggregation and analysis approach is informing new models of waste management, from materials marketplaces to Uberisation, the latter being a trend in which customers that do not own any waste transport or processing infrastructure interact with a technology company through a mobile app, to arrange for waste material to be picked up, moved, recycled or disposed of by third-party operators.
While there are compliance schemes and systems for classifying waste, because of that waste's complexity and volume there is significant variation in the way it is measured. At the same time, companies that generate such waste are realising that it is time to rethink their approach. This has partly been prompted by the need to convert raw materials more efficiently, by increasing pressure to take responsibility for waste, and by the recognition that it has a market value that is not being realised.
This is having an impact on the waste management and recycling sector, which is having to develop new capacity and add value to customer relationships to compete.
With a wave of new technologies changing manufacturing, logistics, financial services and many other sectors the waste management and recycling sector will also be transformed over the next five years, reducing the volume of waste and increasing its utility.
Dr Michael Groves is founder of Topolytics firstname.lastname@example.org
Related competencies include: Big data, Sustainability, Waste management