A world without waste? Yes, it’s possible in a circular economy

If like me, you watched the recent COP21 Climate discussions in Paris with interest, you might also have been wondering where the innovation and leadership might emerge from for protecting our climate and natural resources.

I’m not going to stray into politics but I am going to focus on innovation and new ways of looking at the problems we face with climate change, scarce resources, rapidly growing urban areas and how we can best manage them. As you’ll know if you’ve read other blog posts of mine, I’m a strong believer that technology will play a key role in this (and is already).

At Enevo, we’re already helping cities and companies around the world transform how they look at waste, how they collect it and drive efficiencies whilst doing this, as well as significantly reducing the costs and impacts of waste collection. I have no doubt that this is simply one part of the beginning of a greater shift to models that are more sustainable, efficient and better for our citizens and our environment.

As for how this might in time fit into a bigger picture of change, well If you’ve not heard of the Circular Economy, I urge you to take a closer look. The idea itself has been around since the 1970’s (when it was first proposed by Walter Stahl) but it is coming more recognised as an example of the new ways of thinking we’ll need to embrace to begin a true switch to a cleaner future. How we change the way we think about waste in particular, will be a very important part of any change.

This short video provides an excellent introduction to the Circular Economy in the context of waste and it’s well worth taking a few minutes to watch:

In the field of waste, during the last 20 years or so, we have witnessed a shift from landfill usage to recycling and I believe we’re now starting to see the Circular Economy moving thinking forwards again. In simple terms, a circular economy is about moving towards zero waste by becoming more resource efficient and moving to a much, much higher level of reused/recycled materials.

In my view, the circular economy will transform the waste industry into a resource industry. Enevo is already assisting in driving this change and we are doing our best to demonstrate we are walking the talk. We own and operate our sensors, taking full responsibility of the lifecycle of these products. We sell our data driven services, acquiring and retaining sensors based on how successfully we deliver results for our customers. If a customer takes a bin we are monitoring out of service, we re-use the sensor. If a sensor gets damaged or broken, we take it back to our factory to analyse and repair where possible or recover materials for reuse.

Enevo is also an enabler for the Circular Economy because in order to understand how to better recover and re-use valuable materials, we first need to measure their flows as well as understand and predict the fluctuations in fill levels over time. Companies are generally doing a good job of measuring what materials are going into manufacturing plants or offices but need to do better at knowing what is leaving those buildings as waste. Enevo provides the opportunity to understand actual levels (and types) of waste being generated. An important step on the way to capturing and reusing more materials which our cutting edge analytics and data capture tools can help create a step change towards more sustainable resource use. It’s a vital part of looking at waste as a resource and transforming towards reclaiming much greater quantities of raw materials and reusing them.

The ultimate goal of the circular economy is to evolve into a society where residual waste is minimal with high levels of capture and re-use by a combination of eco-design, new business models (including rental, repair and re-use) along with new recycling technologies and processes.

A recent article from Waste Management World highlighted another critically important reason for shifting to this model: Climate Change. The article reported the International Solid Waste Association’s (ISWA) president, David Newman, at the COP21 Climate meeting in Paris suggesting that circular waste management could reduce a nations CO2 emissions by 15 to 20%, which is enormously significant. Hitting ambitious EU targets for emissions or much higher recycling levels will be almost impossible without embracing these new models for waste management.

Ambitious goals will require significant changes in product design and packaging and in public/consumer, industry and government behaviours to succeed. Whilst this might take decades to deliver, intelligent use of regulations might rapidly accelerate us towards this better future. If you don’t believe that, consider that in the UK the government has only recently instituted a 5p per bag charge to reduce how many plastic bags people use and within weeks the levels have dropped by nearly 80%. Change can happen quickly – with the right incentives.

Regardless of whether or not the right incentives are put in place, the Circular economy and the thinking it stimulates are important to developing new solutions for cities. How we begin this transition for waste is I believe quite simple. We need to look at collections first, doing them smarter, more cost effectively and with much higher analysis of the waste being collected. Then we look at treatment, recycling and returning resources and moving towards far greater resource management for waste. Collection in the past was done blindly or at best reactively. Today we have the ability to anticipate waste production thanks to our big data waste analytics that allow us to predict waste fractions and quantities up to 30 days ahead. Imagine what that means to treatment, recycling and processing centres who can now know with accuracy future waste levels and timings. This is the way be starting changing our view of waste from a problem we have to deal with to a resource with value.

As I said, the first step towards this is to get smarter about measuring and collecting waste and this is what Enevo is already helping our customers do today in a growing number of cities and countries around the world not to mention for many of the largest commercial recyclers and waste management companies around the world. This transition will be impossible without technology.

We at Enevo are not alone in this view either. A recent report by the CIWM on the circular economy concluded that “it really does mean more recycling, reuse and resource efficiency and we heard many colleagues focus on the emphasis they place on getting what might be seen as short term challenges right – materials collection, sorting and quality, public communications, planning and recovery infrastructure investment being highlights” – Everything Enevo is helping resolve today!

The circular economy applied to waste really can make an incredible step change towards a zero waste future. We’ve already begun this journey and I hope that this post might help you also start to see that our garbage might well be an incredible opportunity.

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