Smart Waste, Smart Resources roundup: why we need data in the waste industry

Written by: Maddie Ballard | Published:

On a drizzly October morning, a group of waste management heavyweights could be found nursing early coffees at Birmingham’s Villa Park Conference Centre.

Attendees of RWW’s Smart Waste, Smart Resources conference, they were soon engaged in a full day of idea-swapping about the biggest issues facing their industry today.

In particular, the question of why the waste industry needs data repeatedly surfaced in panel discussions, individual presentations, and lunchtime conversations.

It was first addressed by keynote speaker Alistair Paul, joint team leader of waste regulation and crime at Defra. Paul’s presentation launched the next phase of the GovTech initiative, which announced the £500,000 funding of Antithesis and Topolytics’ project to build and test the UK’s first comprehensive digital waste tracking solution. Click here to watch Paul's presentation.

Naturally, the question of why Defra was interested in funding a data collection waste programme needed answering. Paul said: “A lack of digital waste data keeping is frequently exploited by organised criminals,” he said. “We are therefore looking for a waste tracking service capable of ingesting data, providing different levels of access, data reporting, and data storage, and potentially also some level of public open access.” At the very least, he added, waste data could expose where in the waste chain materials were lost.

Data benefits for industry

Data can assist at just about every stage of the waste management chain, from local authorities’ bin collection to processing at recycling facilities.

At its root level, it can provide knowledge for the waste management chain, and knowledge is power. Sophie Walker, COO of Dsposal, said: “Tracking waste helps us understand what materials we have and where they are. This means the industry can coordinate the reprocessing of materials more efficiently and ultimately avoid unnecessary production, an obvious boon.”

Her point was reiterated by Craig Melsom, programme manager at TechUK, who drew on the example of Dundee’s smart bins initiative. In 2018, the city installed a series of solar-powered bins which crush their contents, meaning they hold up to eight times as much rubbish as the average bin, and are internet connected and able to alert council workers remotely when they need emptying.

As a result, the council carries out fewer refuse collections, reducing its carbon footprint and saving staff time – and the data gathered by the bins, such as what kind of rubbish is collected where and which location’s bins fill up fastest, is also invaluable.

Conference delegates emphasised data’s capacity to simply increase clarity around waste processing. Paul mentioned data’s potential to “prevent misidentification and mislabelling of waste”.

Henry LeFleming, assistant director of sustainability and climate change at PwC, meanwhile suggested that reference to data would increase the accuracy of reported recycling statistics.

Currently, statistics are problematically based on the assumption that waste producers correctly report the amounts presented for recycling, and that these amounts are in fact processed. Having comprehensive, accurate data would also mean recycling targets could be realistically adjusted.

Melsom added that increasing this accuracy could build confidence in secondary markets and encourage investment. For example, Topolytics, which recently made the second round of GovTech funding, provides precise real-time data to industrial and commercial waste producers about the location, movement, and quantity of their waste.

Claiming that “your waste is a valuable resource with a market value”, the company offers analytics to help waste producers recycle, reuse, and re-manufacture, for their own benefit.

Winners of Defra's GovTech initiative

Simone Aplin, technical director of Antithesis, which is also developing a GovTech-funded waste tracking solution, noted that data collection on an item-by-item basis could be desirable, “especially when tracking things we really should keep track of, such as hazardous waste.” It could help us process waste not just more efficiently, but consistently in line with health and environmental standards.

Collecting waste data would in the long-term encourage a self-sufficient UK circular economy. Currently, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste is exported for treatment every year.

Even when this waste is recycled or converted usefully into energy, its transport adds significantly to Britain’s carbon footprint, negating the environmental boost. But having better data might help the UK find ways to avoid needing to export waste in the first place.

Data benefits for consumers

It’s all very well to fund waste management data for industry benefit – but taxpayers might ask, what’s in it for us?

In one of the day’s most powerful presentations, LeFleming presented reams of evidence for consumers’ environmental concern and interest in recycling.

This included the impressive statistic that 60% of consumers have actively sought out products with less packaging and that the number of journal articles about marine plastics has mushroomed since 2005.

But recycling is confusing for consumers, LeFleming said, and there is little clarity for them about where their waste ends up. He therefore suggested a data set would help them quantify their waste production, track its path through the management chain, understand its impact, and ultimately change buying or disposing behaviours.

The potential of such open-access data is already clear in initiatives like the Leeds bin app, which reminds its users which bin to put out when and highlights the nearest recycling points.

Data challenges and costs

Conference speakers were, however, careful not to ignore data’s difficulties. Paul drew attention to both data gaps and data access inconsistencies. Because data often comes in non-digital formats, it requires time-costly and difficult migration processes. Equally, the restriction of data access to, for example, groups with little analytical power or political or social sway is a major issue.

Aplin raised the issue of the different gradations of data granularity currently published. Comparing recycling rates in London’s boroughs with recycling rates across all of Scotland, for instance, is like comparing apples with oranges, she said. Because data collection is not currently mandated at a certain level, figures are difficult to compare or squeeze practical value from.

Both Aplin and Walker posed questions regarding data collection’s effort and cost. Data collection itself has an environmental impact, as it needs to be stored in energy-sapping data centres – although we could view this less as an issue than as an opportunity for innovation.

Additionally, the infrastructure for data collection is still nascent and collecting processes can be time-consuming and expensive.

The overriding feeling at the conference, however, was that there was a greater risk in not starting to collect data, or at the very least, take it seriously. One of data’s primary issues was actually its growing importance, which demands systems and industry figures run, not walk, to catch up.

Where to now?

Perhaps Michael Allegretti, chief strategy officer at Rubicon Global, expressed data’s complex significance best on the day. Speaking about his company’s innovative smart city solution, in which rubbish trucks essentially become “roaming data collection centres”, he said, “data is king but we don’t know all of the uses yet”.

The current arguments for investing in data collection range from saving costs and reducing environmental impacts to making recycling more straightforward and taking extra admin out of workers’ days. But there’s likely more to it.

The latent, yet-unknown benefits of data may be considerable – and in the optimistic opinion of many of the conference’s delegates, that’s surely a good enough reason to collect it.

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