Whether the ambitions of the new Resources & Waste Strategy can be achieved depends on one thing – having timely, accurate and granular data.
The strategy has been widely welcomed across the waste and resource sector and is wider in scope and detail that many people anticipated. It builds on the public mood by focusing on the reduction of single use plastics and proposing initiatives to reduce and recover packaging such as extended producer responsibility and deposit return schemes. There are also moves towards sustainable production, sustainable waste management, the reduction of food waste and actions to tackle waste crime.
All good news so far but is there a catch?
We think there is but luckily, it’s one that has been spotted by Defra too. Without better waste data these initiatives will happen slowly, if at all.
Tracking waste data is going digital
Having the right data available at the right time is crucial to a fully functioning system, which is what Chapter 8 of the RWS focusses on. If this could be achieved, it’s impossible to underestimate the range and scale of benefits that could be realised given the huge number of applications this data could be used for.
Defra realise this and have committed to:
‘Work with tech firms to develop innovative digital solutions for tracking waste, and consult on options to mandate the digital recording and sharing of waste movement data’.
Defra’s GovTech Catalyst initiative has helped to shortlist five projects aiming to solve all or part of the waste tracking digital challenge by the end of 2019.
Playing a key role in the development of a new UK-wide waste tracking system is the Vastum project, developed by Anthesis. Currently in Phase 1 ‘proof of concept’, we’re hoping to get the green light for the second phase to develop and test a full system.
Vastum – Blockchain solution to the waste tracking problem
Our digital waste tracking concept - Vastum - is a blockchain-based approach, applying proven technology mainly used in the finance sector. Blockchain securely records transactions into a 'distributed ledger' on a time-stamp basis and offers a simple, flexible and importantly scalable solution to tracking waste movements.
The system will reliably and securely record all waste movements in the UK, allowing waste to be tracked through the waste management system to its final destination. The new tracker will address the current redundancy of waste data being collected by the many separate systems which were created to monitor regulatory compliance and performance against targets, potentially reducing the administrative burden on stakeholders. The tracker can, over time, be expanded to replace the myriad of existing reporting and compliance data systems used by waste producers, collectors and the regulators.
Did you know?
Vastum is the latin word for waste.
Importantly, recording waste movements at source by the waste producer, will also address the current data gaps, enabling reporting of waste arisings from commercial & industrial, and construction and demolition sources, track waste sent to exempt sites and wastes being dispatched for re-use as well as provide a fast and accurate method of identifying potential waste crime.
Vastum will be owned and maintained by a stakeholder consortium, including representation from Defra, the waste industry, manufacturing sector and other interested parties. Access to the system will be free, making it available to everyone, important if it becomes mandatory which is being considered by Defra and will be subject to consultation.
Learn more about the Vastum system below.
How will better data drive the UK towards a sustainable and circular economy?
If we can get this right, better data could lead to a step change in the way waste and resources are managed, helping the country to achieve a more efficiency and circular economy. A circular economy just isn’t possible without having the correct data on the resources it relies on.
The uncertain effect of Brexit on waste exports and the desire for increasing resource security in the UK industry is increasingly likely to look to waste as a source of raw materials. This is something that the waste sector is keenly aware of and it understands the need to transform from traditional waste management services into raw material suppliers.
The Environmental Services Association has coordinated the establishment of the cross-industry body, the UK Resources Council. The Council, chaired by Suez UK chief executive David Palmer-Jones, includes representatives from organisations operating at all stages of a product’s lifecycle, from design through waste management to end users of secondary materials and will negotiate a Waste Sector Deal with the Government. The Deal will set out the actions the sector will take and the commitments and support from Government to deliver the step change required.
Anthesis is supporting the four working groups drafting chapters covering people, place, infrastructure, data and design. Knowing what waste is being generated in what quantity and where will assist the sector to efficiently and effectively recover the resources that can be transformed into raw materials for manufacturing.
Tracking the amount of waste generated will help recover resources to be converted into secondary materials for manufacturing.
Comprehensive, timely and accurate data will also provide a reliable evidence base with which Government and policy makers will be able to identify policy interventions and fiscal incentives that will support resource efficiency and protect the environment. It has long been the case that there have been recycling targets for municipal waste but no similar target for commercial and industrial waste, and construction and demolition sources. This is likely because there has been no accurate data on how much of this waste is generated in the UK and therefore it is not possible to monitor performance.
Historically waste policy has sought to control or influence waste for which data is available rather than prioritising areas that are likely to have a significant environmental impact. With comprehensive data on all waste arisings and how it is managed, Government and policy makers will have the opportunity to truly consider the most effective interventions and monitor the impacts.
Live tracking of data to reduce waste crime
The other major beneficiary of better data will be the environmental regulators in the UK. Currently, most datasets we have are those that result from specific waste management legislation that require waste producers and waste managers to report information. As a result, there are significant gaps making it difficult to track waste through the system and identify where waste crimes could be being committed.
Having the ability to access near live data for every waste movement in the UK and to track materials through the network of waste management sites to their final destination will allow regulators to investigate crime at every level, from national trends in waste crime such as Landfill Tax Fraud (the mis-description of waste) and illegal waste sites to individual instances of fly-tipping. Waste crime results in a significant cost to the UK and our environment.
Our Vastum system would make the mis-management of waste very visible to the regulators and we hope that this will act as a significant deterrent, reducing crime overall. This, combined with effective enforcement, will reduce the incidence of environmental harm, helping create the level playing field the legitimate waste industry deserves.
Better waste tracking will help to prevent the illegal export of waste which can cause environmental damage overseas.
On a personal level, having worked in the waste sector for more than 20 years, I can’t remember a time when I was more hopeful for the future. In my career I have worked on a landfill, as a regulator and now, as a consultant, and waste data, or the lack of it, has been a common thread over all that time. I have seen first-hand the uncertainly and inertia that has resulted and trying to interpret the data we do have for clients such as investors and policy makers has kept me very busy for many years. The excitement at the kick off meeting for the smart waste tracking digital challenge was palpable as all of the delegates understand the potential benefits we could realise if we can address this long-standing problem.
In the meantime, if someone asks you a few more questions about the waste you produce, don’t see it as ‘more red tape’, see it as your contribution to a brighter future!
About the authorSimone is a Technical Director for Waste and Resource Sustainability with over two decades of experience and operational understanding within the public and private sector. Simone is also a member of Defra's wate data group and acts as an expert witness to UK courts in both criminal and civil waste disputes.