Government turns to blockchain to boost waste management transparency

The UK Government has unveiled plans to invest in startups which are using digital technologies like blockchain and machine learning to solve the nation's most pressing waste management issues.

The Government is concerned that a lack of digital record keeping in the waste industry is being frequently exploited by organised criminals

The Government is concerned that a lack of digital record keeping in the waste industry is being frequently exploited by organised criminals

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) this week named the waste management projects it will be investing in as part of the £20m GovTech Catalyst scheme, which aims to help technology firms develop and scale solutions to the nation’s biggest environmental challenges.

Under the scheme, SMEs were challenged to develop digital technologies that could improve waste tracking practices and tackle waste crime, in order to receive a share of a £400,000 funding pot.

The successful projects, revealed on Tuesday (19 February), include those using electronic chips and sensors to track waste through the value chain, those using blockchain technology to boost traceability and those developing new data analytics frameworks. Each will receive up to £80,000 in Government support.

Among the winners is sustainability services provider Anthesis, which is assessing the feasibility of using blockchain applications from the finance sector to track waste after it is sent for processing. The technology acts as a digital ledger, time-stamping any movements of money – or waste.

The startup hopes the audit trail offered by blockchain could replace the current “myriad” of reporting and compliance data systems used throughout the waste value chain. It also believes the technology could "plug" any existing data gaps by recording waste movements from the source.

Resource efficiency specialist International Synergies Limited has also been chosen to receive funding, after developing a digital platform which combines artificial intelligence (AI), big data and machine learning to simplify and unify existing data entry processes in the waste management sector.

Called The System for Waste Enhancement, Evaluation and Tracking (SWEET), the platform tracks waste movements in real-time and vets all waste collectors and receivers against registered lists.

It additionally provides users with advice on how to maximise the value of the resources within their waste streams, helping them to embed circular economy thinking in their approach.

Once the five winning concepts have undergone a three-month development period, two will be chosen by Defra to receive up to £500,000 to develop a large-scale prototype later this year.

“We want to move towards a more circular economy, where waste is valued as a resource and reused,” Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey said.

“We are also committed to cracking down on waste criminals who exploit the system. I look forward to seeing these innovative waste tracking solutions, which will help us to meet these ambitions.”

No time to waste

Defra believes that the technologies used by the successful projects could play a key part in helping the Government achieve its 2050 goal of sending no “avoidable” waste to landfill.

Considering that the UK is currently generating more than 200 million tonnes of waste annually and shipping, with 48% packaging recovery note (PRN) purchases by UK-based companies believed to be made abroad, this is no small feat.

Indeed, a recent independent review into waste management and waste crime, commissioned by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, found that a lack of digital record-keeping in the waste industry is frequently exploited by organised criminals who mislabel waste to avoid landfill tax or illegally export it.

In a bid to meet the 250 target, outlined in the Clean Growth Strategy, Defra has therefore developed an update to its Resources and Waste Strategy for the first time in more than a decade. 

The new strategy proposes that producers should be forced to pay full net-costs of disposal of packaging they place on the market – up from just 10% now. It additionally outlines a potential overhaul of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) framework, which could be expanded to cover textiles, fishing gear, tyres, certain materials from construction, and bulky household waste such as mattresses, furniture and carpets.

Another headline proposal is the introduction of a national deposit return scheme, designed to increase the recycling of single-use drinks containers including bottles, cans and disposable cups filled at the point of use.

Defra this week launched a consultation on the scheme, putting forward two variants of the system – an “all-in” model, which would cover all beverages placed on the market, irrespective of size, and an “on-the-go” model, which would restrict drinks containers that could operate in the system to less than 750ml and sold in a single format.

The consultation will run for 12 weeks and is taking place alongside similar consultations into proposed tax penalties for firms failing to include recycled content in their packaging, and the implementation of standardised waste collections. You can find out how key figures within the UK’s green economy have reacted to the measures set out in the three consultations by clicking here.

Sarah George



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