We are living in an age of waste. Are digital technologies the answer to fix our disposable culture?

Today, the recycling sector in India stands at an inflection point, owing to the rising use of recyclable materials, and an increasingly conscious consumer base. And, as the world comes under pressure to move past the linear take-make-waste model, we need to act fast.

The pandemic made it clear: if we need to create a healthier world, we will need to transition to a circular economy. 

So, what exactly are the models we need to leave behind? How can we use circularity as an appropriate model to implement optimal and cost-effective resource recovery? And, how can the latest technological advancements help get us there?

So far, the linear take-make-waste model has presented itself as a broken approach when it comes to the creation of products, flow of materials through the economy, how they are transported and ultimately, where they go after use. It goes without saying that currently there is a lack of policy frameworks, as well as a limited approach to the journey of products encompassing usage and disposal. Other challenges such as ineffective collection, irregularity in waste pick-ups and broken waste segregation systems all pose immense risks to the ecosystem. 

This calls for a revolution in maintaining products and materials already in use in the economy and regenerating natural systems. 

Changing the Course with Technology 

Through innovative digital technologies, it is possible to modernise and transform the supply chain of waste elimination. How can we track materials so they remain in the economy? How can technology help better decision-making and usher in a new sustainable model?

The current landscape is evolving at break-neck speed with transformative applications of digital technologies impacting industries from FMCG, fashion to food, by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, among others. For instance, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan focuses on emerging technologies to fix waste management via mechanised collection by vehicles and GPS tracking technologies. Such applications of technology help improve the role of informal waste workers, and try to restructure resource recovery in India. 

Data streams and predictive analytic approaches can transform the circular economy and help organisations become ecosystem-centric as opposed to company-centric. Did you know, data-driven organisations are 23 times more likely to acquire customers, and 19 times more profitable” — as per McKinsey Global Institute survey? 

Digital technology is crucial for the infrastructure to work, as it enables connectivity, transparency, and optimisation of the circular economy. Here’s how:

Supply chain management: Currently, organisations deal with challenges such as waste supply chain faces inefficiencies, limited transparency and lack of data driven insights — proving that there is a need for transformation of operations. Technology can provide a line of sight across the supply chain with traceability of goods/ products, as well as locations and status. With complete control over the supply chain, from sourcing to disposal, it is possible for organisations to manage their materials, unlock opportunities for waste reduction and deliver on their sustainability goals. 

Operational efficiency: With optimisation softwares and analytic tools which help trace the supply chain from collectors to processors, brands can leverage transparency. Such platforms can ensure end-to-end traceability for plastic credits, live data tracking, reporting for SDGs and compliance. Further, the exchange of data between brand and partner ecosystems helps implement operation efficiency, ultimately, increasing productivity and providing bottom-line results. 

Data as a strategic asset: Data analytics can help businesses with instant insights, reporting, visualisations, etc. ensuring a solid data infrastructure to help in strategic decision-making. Clean quality data enables predictive modelling for complex use cases which can help leaders think and act more decisively about the future. It is true that data never lies. 

Leverage IoT to increase efficiency of waste management processes: The use of technologies such as RFID, geo-tagging, location tracking, and the development of digital solutions such as bin sensors/smart trucks, robotic sorting/ segregation, mobile applications, and optimization software businesses can bypass local obstacles and uncover opportunities to co-create a sustainable future. As an example, bin sensors can detect waste volumes thereby enhancing waste collection.

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EPR compliance and improve sustainability credentials: Oftentimes, businesses lack the expertise to comply with EPR norms — there are ever-evolving guidelines/ frameworks to track. Many brands also do not have data to back their claims when it comes to EPR compliance and are often suspected of greenwashing. With analytic platforms and optimisation softwares, it is possible to have access to visualised dashboards, reports about waste streams and the collection/ processing process, information on emission factors, real-time data etc. enabling them to understand the impact they will create by turning waste into a valuable resource. 

We need to put an ecosystem in place in order to build a platform for waste from collection till recycling. Constant innovation, digital technology implementation and cost-effective solutions will be a game-changer for the recycling industry as it will contribute to the regeneration of natural systems. Digital technologies should be considered a means to an end. 

The time to act is now.