The Fundamental Role of Waste Data Analytics in a Circular Economy

Data has a fundamental role to play in how we measure and manage waste as part of the circular economy. The question is, how do you navigate the complex and often chaotic world of waste management?
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The volume of waste currently generated and managed in our traditional, linear “take, make, dispose of” way of doing things is out of kilter with what our cities and, ultimately, our planet, can withstand. This waste culture coupled with the finite resources we have is accelerating us towards a disastrous future. The only way we can avoid our planet turning into a toxic wasteland is by embracing the circular economy now.

South Africa has, thankfully, been moving in this direction for the last decade, albeit slowly. While intentions have for the most part been good, initiatives have lacked efficacy in the absence of a political will, resources and a framework to create an enabling environment required to transform our economy from a linear to a circular one.

In 2009, the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) was first introduced into South African environmental law, effectively assigning responsibility for the safe and sustainable disposal of waste to the original producers of the waste, for the first time.

Founded on the “polluter-pays principle”, the intention of EPR is to extend a producer’s responsibility for its product across the product’s entire life cycle, including the choice of packaging and the method of disposal. This mechanism is used to meet the critical objectives of minimising waste and moving toward a more circular economy.

A tangible and welcome consequence of the legislation is the phasing out of the much loved, “out of sight, out of mind” South African landfills.  Many have already been closed down and more are expected to be phased out over the next 10 years. This will significantly diminish landfill disposal options at exponentially higher gate fees.

Even companies that claim to be “ahead of the game” in driving zero waste are not as advanced as they would like everyone to believe. They all experience material barriers to transforming the waste economy from a linear to a circular one.

For companies on the fringe of the zero waste agenda, who have never even considered this to be an issue are finding themselves having to play some serious catch-up. It is these companies that keep traditional waste disposal relevant at a critical juncture when we need to make a radical shift towards circularity.

The complexity and chaos of waste management

Waste is often miscategorised with water and energy when it’s a different beast all on its own. Electricity is reticulated through wires and water is piped – making both relatively easy to measure and manage right down to a granular level using smart meters. Waste, on the other hand, is way more complex, and dealing with it in a compliant and sustainable way is subsequently a lot more complicated.

There are many types of waste streams, each with different characteristics. Each waste stream has different levels of contamination, calorific and nutrient value and requirements for cost-effective, safe and sustainable disposal.

Another consideration is that waste is generated from different sources. It’s a very decentralised ecosystem that requires central processing, especially in urban areas. It’s literally all over the place and sustainability was never part of the brief, until now.

The entire system of handling, transporting and processing waste needs to fundamentally change. For waste streams to be isolated, tracked and transported to their place of processing in a compliant way, we require a whole new way of managing waste with specialised contractors and transport infrastructure.

That waste is almost impossible to measure properly with the current tools and infrastructure is another major challenge for companies. With limited insight and data, companies struggle to get a handle on their waste management activities

The issue is further exacerbated by the reliance on the same contractors for accurate and reliable data. This invariably ends up being a data disaster for companies that use multiple waste service providers, as they receive varying, sometimes conflicting reports. Companies also contract differently, which makes it difficult to compare suppliers in terms of impact and cost.

Driving the zero waste agenda

It is clear that radical change is needed to adequately deal with the challenges and nuances of waste management. One of the challenges that many companies grapple with, is bringing about a behaviour shift in their organisations towards waste.  Ongoing training, appropriate policies and procedures, and effective change management are key to maintaining a sustainable waste management program.

The Western Cape in South Africa appears to be the first to take steps to facilitate this behaviour shift in companies and are in the process of phasing out organic waste from landfill. From next year, companies will only be able to take 50% of their organic waste to landfill and need to set in place a strategy to ensure that the other 50% is diverted by 2027.

As positive as the move is towards encouraging a recycling culture in companies, there is still the big “elephant in the room” question: if not the landfill, where do we take the waste, and can the diverted organic waste be processed on the same scale?

Currently, in South Africa, there are no large-scale alternatives in lieu of landfills that are being phased out. So, where does the waste go? It is falling to the private sector to fill the gap. Alternatives such as a fleet of large-scale biogas digesters, composting facilities or fly farms in close proximity to the main metros simply do not exist.

Yes, the EPR comes at a good time, albeit about five years too late (in our opinion), and will help address many of the challenges outlined above. If implemented correctly, the EPR can create a more enabling environment that incentivises the development of sustainable waste processing facilities and provide more specific metrics and goals around how these resources need to be reincorporated into the new circular economy.

An example of this is the requirements of the SA Plastic Pact where signatories, including all major retailers, have committed to reducing and recycling plastic waste.  They have committed to 100% of plastic packaging being reusable or compostable, 70% of plastic packaging being effectively recycled, and 30% averaged recycled content in all packaging. This is already having a ripple effect up the supply chain.

And speaking of the supply chain, waste contractors have a critical role to play in driving the zero waste agenda. They will have to recycle better, as well as isolate and transport multiple waste streams to align with the new normal. The companies that transform will prosper. The ones that don’t, will struggle to compete.

The thing that waste management companies are going to have to get much better at is more to do with probably the most cliched adage yet the one that has no equal – “you can’t change what you can’t measure” – Thank you Peter Drukker (again). Producers of waste and waste management companies have got to get much better at measuring and providing data back to their clients in a timely and accurate format as they are the ones who are ultimately responsible for the waste and face fines and jail sentences for non-compliance.

In conclusion, the waste industry is going through a major transition that will take about 10 to 20 years to fully achieve. In order for this transition to be successful, many of the barriers mentioned above need to be overcome. But once the transition risk is managed effectively, the circular economy represents a massive opportunity for both people and the planet.

Join the circular economy. Get in touch with GCX to help you navigate and enhance your waste management strategy with our innovate data analytics dashboard and our deep environmental expertise.

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