How meta-mapping and AI can aid the circular economy

Written by: Mike Groves | Published:
Recyclers can use meta-maps to understand where material arises in order to drive better purchasing decisions and investments in capacity

From AI in bins to ‘Uberisation’ and meta-mapping, the industrial and commercial waste management sector is awash with hi-tech data innovations.

The waste management and recycling sector as we know it emerged in the early 19th Century within a rapidly growing and industrialising London. While the profile of waste, nature of its sources and approaches to management have evolved, they have done so within the broader context of a linear economy where waste is a norm.

Flip forward 200 years and the World Bank estimates that by 2025, more than two billion tonnes of urban, municipal waste will be generated globally. The bulk of which will still end up in a landfill or waste dump, thereby losing its economic value as an energy source or a higher level of utility for re-use, remanufacture or recycling.

This is a challenge to the current paradigm of waste management (built on a linear model) and has helped to drive the growing calls for a wholesale shift towards a circular economy, where materials and products are created and designed in order to retain their utility, thereby driving waste out of the system.

Already in 2018, we are faced with many challenges around how we reduce and manage the significant volumes of waste within the industrial system. This is exemplified by China’s move to ban the import of low-grade plastics and paper – severely disrupting a well-established supply chain and forcing capacity constraints.

While China’s decision is somewhat precipitous, it sits alongside the well-publicised public concerns about ocean plastics and micro-plastic contamination, investors shifting money away from hydrocarbon assets and increased interest in the bio-economy. Taken together, where does this leave the industrial and commercial waste management and recycling sector?

The range and volume of ‘feedstock’ collected, moved, sold, processed or disposed by the waste management industry generates a significant volume and velocity of data. The only problem is that this data has not traditionally been captured well; nor has the sector used data to drive efficiencies or even innovate and develop new business models. As we enter a post-China, circular economy world, that is beginning to change.

If we look at the £1.5 trillion ‘cleantech’ sector, this has been dominated by large-scale investments in clean energy infrastructure. This is now changing and the buzzwords in cleantech are Internet of Things (IoT), big data, robotics, smart grid, etc. This is also true of the emerging ‘wastetech’ or ‘smartwaste’ sector, which is valued at about £1.5bn globally.

Internet of Bins

Here the first wave of investment has focused on the so-called ‘Internet of Bins’, sensor-based systems that enable more efficient collection and movement of waste materials. 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 focused on the use of AI and analytics to drive more re-use of materials, maximising their utility and keeping them in localised loops.

One model is the ‘Uberisation’ of waste management, where the customer has a relationship with a technology company, interacting through a mobile app, that does not own any transport or processing infrastructure. As with a taxi service, the waste material is picked up, moved, recycled or disposed of by third-party operators.

While there are compliance schemes and systems for classifying industrial and commercial waste, due to its complexity and volume, there is significant variation in the way this material is measured. At the same time, companies that generate such waste are realising that it is time to rethink their approach.

This is partly driven by the need to convert raw materials more efficiently, increasing pressure to take responsibility for the waste and the recognition that it has a market value that they are not realising. This, in turn, is impacting the waste management and recycling industry, which is having to develop new capacity and add more value to customer relationships in order to compete.

This is where Topolytics comes in. Commercial and industrial waste management is a system, comprising a network of producers, movers, traders and valorisers, connected by a flow of materials and associated transactions. It is a marketplace of sorts, but an imperfect one because of poor data and a lack of transparency.

Topolytics overcomes these problems through its live ‘meta-map’ of the generation, movement and valorisation of multiple materials. Its data platform is used by a growing number of manufacturers and retailers to identify inconsistencies in their waste data, understand what happens to this material and drive waste and cost reductions.

It is also feeding this live map, data and narrative into their internal and external reports on sustainability. Recyclers can also use it to understand where material arises in order to drive better purchasing decisions and investments in capacity. The resulting meta-database when viewed across multiple sites and materials has a wider value to investors and policy-makers.

We use mapping and geospatial technology because it provides an ideal framework to manage the interoperability – that is, the software to exchange and make use of information – of many different data sources and inputs, particularly when working on a global basis. It is also an ideal way to add context to the data, as waste is generated in multiple locations and moved around locally, nationally and internationally.

There is a saying within the world of geography that a good map helps you to make better decisions. This is the fundamental aim of Topolytics – to reduce waste, reduce costs and maximise its utility and value in the industrial system. This approach has seen the company identified by the California-based research body, Cleantech Group, as one of the emerging leaders in the smartwaste sector.

Realising circular economy ambitions

In February, Topolytics was invited to join the Circular Economy 100 (CE100), an innovation programme established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to enable organisations to develop new opportunities and realise their circular economy ambitions faster. This places the company on a level playing field with the other CE100 members, many of which are the world’s most progressive multinational companies and governments.

Topolytics is firmly of the view that analytics and artificial intelligence represent a significant opportunity for the waste management and recycling industry – if it is embraced. In the same way that the renewable energy system has moved from a decentralised model driven by ‘smart-grid’ and machine learning technologies, so waste will be managed and valorised on a localised, distributed basis – also driven by better data and analytics.

A wave of new technologies is changing and disrupting manufacturing, logistics, financial services and many other sectors. Waste management and recycling is no exception, and over the next 10 years we will see such Industry 4.0 innovations changing the sector and driving waste reduction and increasing the utility of this material.

Mike Groves is CEO of data analyst business Topolytics.

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