Global waste is a growing problem that must be addressed and technology can a key role in tackling the issue, according to Michael Groves, Founder and CEO of Topolytics.
The Edinburgh-based data analytics firm works with a range of organisations, including SAP and Defra, to help monitor and track the movement of waste in real-time – greatly enhancing transparency and efficiency.
Topolytics is one of a number of exciting startups trailblazing the use of technology in what has been traditionally an ‘unattractive’ area – waste management.
But while waste management has been perceived by some as a dirty, perhaps unappealing industry, Groves insists that innovation in this space offers two enormous opportunities; the chance to help the environment and create value from trash.
“As the old saying goes, where there’s muck, there’s brass,” he says.
“If I think back 25 years when I finished my PhD and said I’d like to work in environmental management, people said ‘I think you should go get yourself a proper job’.
“The perception has changed though, certainly within the last two or three years where we’ve seen a growing awareness of ocean plastics, for example, which has driven a lot of interest around what happens to waste.”
A growing problem
Figures published by the World Bank highlight the growing problem of waste worldwide. In 2016, cities around the world generated an estimated 2.01 billion tonnes of waste, but this is expected to increase to nearly 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050.
A key issue in tackling the growing problem of waste is transparency within the supply chain, which is what Groves and Topolytics hope to streamline.
The company has developed its WasteMap analytics platform over the past few years, working with companies that produce waste and those that process and recycle that material. In 2019, it was commissioned by Defra and the environmental regulators to create a prototype system that can digitally track all waste across the UK. This system is using WasteMap to process and analyse the data that will be fed by all of the UK waste management companies and generate insights for the regulators.
By improving transparency and efficiently ingesting and processing data – waste producers and waste recyclers can see patterns in the data not previously visible. This can drive cost and process efficiencies, enable new business models and unlock value in the material.
“We’re trying to expose, or uncover, the system and make things more transparent so that you can make the whole process more efficient and, thereby, increase the level of recovery rather than just have it disappearing into a hole in the ground,” he explains.
Groves notes that waste producers are often unaware of how waste is processed. An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach has been taken by many over the years, but slowly that is changing.
“We see a lot of waste producers not fully understanding how much waste they generate and what happens when it goes into the system. Once it’s moving it then becomes mixed and that’s a big part of the problem,” he explains.
“The big question a lot of them then begin to ask is what happened to it?”
Many organisations have woken up to the issue of sustainability, Groves believes. This is not solely from an ethical perspective, either. Companies are beginning to realise that there is serious value to be found in the recovery and re-use of materials.
“What we are seeing now is that companies are saying ‘we need to get on top of this’ because they want to recover materials and they don’t want that going into a system where it might end up in the wrong place,” he explains.
“A lot of material that goes into landfill actually has significant value, and it’s very wasteful.”
Unlocking value from eWaste
A point of particular concern for Groves is the topic of electronic waste, or ‘eWaste’.
Society’s insatiable thirst for the latest computer device or smartphone has a major impact on the environment and results in millions of tonnes of waste each year.
Indeed, a United Nations-backed report in 2019 showed that more than 50 million tonnes of electronic and electric waste is produced annually.
This problem shows no sign of subsiding, either. A report from the UN E-Waste Coalition suggests that Global eWaste production is expected to surpass 120 million tonnes per year by 2050.
“This is an issue we need to pay attention to. We’re all using devices in our day-to-day lives, and will continue to do that, so we need to question what happens to those devices after we’ve given up on them?”
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In terms of transparency, Groves believes eWaste presents a significant challenge worldwide.
According to the UN, only 20% of eWaste is ‘formally recycled’ while the remaining 80% ends up in landfill or being ‘informally recycled’ by hand in developing countries.
Improving transparency and efficiency in the waste management supply chain has the potential to reduce both environmental and public health impact of waste.
This area is also raising eyebrows among companies who wish to unlock the value of waste as it represents a veritable goldmine.
“Improper management of e-waste is resulting in a significant loss of scarce and valuable raw materials,” according to the UN. This includes materials such as gold, cobalt, platinum or rare earth elements. In fact, up to 7% of the world’s gold is believed to be contained in eWaste.
From this perspective, Groves believes organisations can ill afford to ignore efficient waste management processes. Furthermore, the burden of responsibility should be placed on them to ensure materials or products are appropriately re-used.
“We need to encourage the producer of these products to take responsibility, to take that material or that product back,” he insists.
“If you look at Apple, for example, they’ve been quite proactive in their work around deconstructing iPhones or designing them so their components can be easily re-used.”
A culture of wastefulness, Groves adds, is stifling progress in some regards. Traditionally, built-in obsolescence has been a major factor in the rise of eWaste and recent high-profile instances where software upgrades have prompted customers to buy newer products does not help change cultural norms.
“You think to yourself, well that totally flies in the face of everything we’re trying to do around the re-use of materials and the circular economy. It’s building redundancy into hardware rather than trying to sort out ways of reusing it, and that’s incredibly wasteful,” he says.
Slow but steady digitisation
For all the investment and focus upon improving sustainability in business, Groves concedes that the waste management industry can hugely benefit from digitisation.
Operators can only function to a certain degree of efficiency, and traditionally this sector has been slow to innovate or adopt new methodologies.
“Waste management is a massive industry, but it’s a very traditional one and it’s followed the same models for a very long time,” he asserts.
“Now there is a lot of external pressure and these companies are having to respond to that and answer questions around resource recovery and efficiency.
“There are a lot of moving parts in this debate, but to deliver that truly systemic change a lot needs to happen, and technology can enable and accelerate this.”
This slow but steady process of digitisation offers a prime opportunity for entrepreneurs and technologists to deliver both positive impact and tap into a lucrative emerging market.
“There is a massive opportunity out there for Scottish innovators, academics, technologists – you name it – to get stuck in and build significant, scalable businesses in response to global environmental challenges, be it decarbonisation, deforestation or air quality,” he says.
“This is what we’re trying to do with materials and the circular economy – to build something that is scalable and profitable but that also has a real sense of purpose behind it.”
Michael Groves will be speaking at the 5th Annual Digital Transformation Virtual Summit on October 28th.