Throwaway gold: How data can tap into the unrealised potential in plastic waste

plastic waste

When thinking about plastic waste, consumers focus on what they see. There’s the five ‘R’s of waste management: refuse wasteful products, reduce those you must buy, reuse what you already have, repurpose goods that are no longer reusable, and recycle whatever is leftover.

Unseen by citizens, there’s an entire economy built on plastic waste. Or, there could be, if there was the infrastructure for it.

Currently, 86 per cent of recyclable plastics are not being recycled, a waste that could be worth up to US$120 billion worldwide.

One factor blocking access to these lost billions- there isn’t enough data.

With over 8 billion tons of plastic entering the ocean every year, there is a global plastic waste crisis. Yet, due to inconsistencies across the global plastic value chain, there is patchy data on how plastic gets there and where it passes on the way.

With just five Asian countries contributing the majority of ocean plastic waste, the problem is washing up on Southeast Asian shores.

But one person’s waste can be another person’s opportunity. From data to discarded goods, the plastic waste crisis provides plenty of fuel for an entrepreneur looking to innovate.

Also Read: COVID-19, the environment, and the tech ecosystem: what opportunity is available out there for us?

The plastic waste economy

From the extraction of resources to create virgin (or new) plastics to the manufacturing process that forms them into products, each plastic item embarks on a long journey before it is recycled or discarded.

At each stage of this plastic journey, there are multiple stakeholders involved. Formally, there are municipal waste management services.

But for many countries across South and Southeast Asia, waste is collected by a community of informal waste collectors. These people capture waste before it enters the ocean and assumes responsibility for its next step.

Like much informal labour, it is unstable. The pay is poor, trapping workers in a cycle of reliance on products sold in cheap and unrecyclable sachets, which make up a significant portion of plastic waste.

Changes in demand can render an entire day’s work worthless. It’s hard labour, in unsanitary conditions, often without the structural support of sick pay or healthcare.

In India, startups like Nepra are beginning to create technological solutions to empower informal waste workers by automating and centralising plastic sorting, sales, and payments.

It is an excellent initial step, but we need to aspire to more comprehensive solutions. Think, an entire overhaul of the plastic waste management system led by those manufacturing the waste, supported by the governments that are (or are not) collecting and managing it.

Also Read: In brief: New incubation programme for SEA’s plastic waste startups

Closing the plastics data gap

Effective solutions are rarely a result of a random collision; they need planning and expertise underpinned by data. Plastic waste data, or the current lack thereof, could be critical in closing the gap that plastic waste leaks through.

There are three key stages in the plastic lifecycle where better data could generate solutions.

Firstly, data on plastic waste sources could reveal what elements of plastic waste management work well and what needs improving.

The issue can be quantified into a solvable problem statement by identifying the products that become waste, how they are discarded, and how they evade waste management. Data helps to identify patterns and strengthen the waste management system to prevent them from repeating.

The next opportunity that good plastics data presents is identifying when or where plastic leaks out of the waste system.

Technological advances enable preventative measures, like remote monitoring of leakage hotspots, or AI could predict potential issues for targeted waste management system upgrades.

Once plastics are captured in systems, they can be managed better. By applying analytics to plastics recycling, supply chain actors can be more visible, transparent and efficient.

This enables better repurposing of waste, uncovering opportunities to invest in and invent new alternatives. Analysing waste could generate meaningful evidence on the habits of consumers, too.

Topolytics is one such rising data-driven player. By collecting, aggregating and analysing data on waste, they empower actors across the plastic waste value chain to better collect, manage and recycle plastic waste more strategically.

Also Read: Southeast Asia is in plastic waste crisis, and these 16 sustainable startups strive to turn things around

What is plastic waste worth?

It may seem overkill to invest so much time and resources into collecting materials that have already been discarded. But plastic waste is only garbage when it is treated as such.

Our oceans are littered with plastic that is destroying ecosystems and filling the food chain with harmful microplastics – but this plastic waste could be generating profits.

The World Bank estimates that S$8 billion of value is lost each year by not recycling plastics in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand alone.

91 per cent of Southeast Asian consumers are concerned about plastic waste, but less than half are currently willing to adjust their purchasing patterns. Manufacturers have an opportunity to meet consumer needs while reducing their waste footprint.

The field is still open for leaders in recycled plastic to emerge. Some innovators are experimenting with new ways to repurpose non-recyclable plastics to create new products from building materials to furniture and accessories.

Plastic waste is the perfect case study to demonstrate the power of a circular economy- while the plastic value chain is currently a disconnected series of islands, looping them together would meet the material needs of consumers, workers and producers alike.

To that end, Closing The Data Gap Challenge, an initiative run by The Circulate Initiative, in partnership with The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, aims to support decision-makers and other stakeholders to create a better quality of data and advance a more inclusive and effective circular economy.

Data intervention, today

When it comes to plastic waste, the opportunities for innovation loom large – but so does the threat of failing to intervene. The plastic waste crisis, left as is, harms the environment and the health of all organisms living in it, from humans in cities to rural farm animals and even underwater coral reefs.

Also Read: One man’s trash is another’s gold: How Tridi Oasis plans to transform plastic waste management

The big picture is clear: plastic waste is poisoning the planet. But with better data, policy action, corporate change and consumer support, we can create new solutions that go beyond solving the issue and create new opportunities.

By understanding the nature and scale of the data gap, we can take concrete steps to solve it.

Editor’s note: e27 aims to foster thought leadership by publishing views from the community. Share your opinion by submitting an article, video, podcast, or infographic

Join our e27 Telegram group, FB community, or like the e27 Facebook page

Image credit: marcobonfanti

The post Throwaway gold: How data can tap into the unrealised potential in plastic waste appeared first on e27.

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plastic waste

When thinking about plastic waste, consumers focus on what they see. There’s the five ‘R’s of waste management: refuse wasteful products, reduce those you must buy, reuse what you already have, repurpose goods that are no longer reusable, and recycle whatever is leftover.

Unseen by citizens, there’s an entire economy built on plastic waste. Or, there could be, if there was the infrastructure for it.

Currently, 86 per cent of recyclable plastics are not being recycled, a waste that could be worth up to US$120 billion worldwide.

One factor blocking access to these lost billions- there isn’t enough data.

With over 8 billion tons of plastic entering the ocean every year, there is a global plastic waste crisis. Yet, due to inconsistencies across the global plastic value chain, there is patchy data on how plastic gets there and where it passes on the way.

With just five Asian countries contributing the majority of ocean plastic waste, the problem is washing up on Southeast Asian shores.

But one person’s waste can be another person’s opportunity. From data to discarded goods, the plastic waste crisis provides plenty of fuel for an entrepreneur looking to innovate.

Also Read: COVID-19, the environment, and the tech ecosystem: what opportunity is available out there for us?

The plastic waste economy

From the extraction of resources to create virgin (or new) plastics to the manufacturing process that forms them into products, each plastic item embarks on a long journey before it is recycled or discarded.

At each stage of this plastic journey, there are multiple stakeholders involved. Formally, there are municipal waste management services.

But for many countries across South and Southeast Asia, waste is collected by a community of informal waste collectors. These people capture waste before it enters the ocean and assumes responsibility for its next step.

Like much informal labour, it is unstable. The pay is poor, trapping workers in a cycle of reliance on products sold in cheap and unrecyclable sachets, which make up a significant portion of plastic waste.

Changes in demand can render an entire day’s work worthless. It’s hard labour, in unsanitary conditions, often without the structural support of sick pay or healthcare.

In India, startups like Nepra are beginning to create technological solutions to empower informal waste workers by automating and centralising plastic sorting, sales, and payments.

It is an excellent initial step, but we need to aspire to more comprehensive solutions. Think, an entire overhaul of the plastic waste management system led by those manufacturing the waste, supported by the governments that are (or are not) collecting and managing it.

Also Read: In brief: New incubation programme for SEA’s plastic waste startups

Closing the plastics data gap

Effective solutions are rarely a result of a random collision; they need planning and expertise underpinned by data. Plastic waste data, or the current lack thereof, could be critical in closing the gap that plastic waste leaks through.

There are three key stages in the plastic lifecycle where better data could generate solutions.

Firstly, data on plastic waste sources could reveal what elements of plastic waste management work well and what needs improving.

The issue can be quantified into a solvable problem statement by identifying the products that become waste, how they are discarded, and how they evade waste management. Data helps to identify patterns and strengthen the waste management system to prevent them from repeating.

The next opportunity that good plastics data presents is identifying when or where plastic leaks out of the waste system.

Technological advances enable preventative measures, like remote monitoring of leakage hotspots, or AI could predict potential issues for targeted waste management system upgrades.

Once plastics are captured in systems, they can be managed better. By applying analytics to plastics recycling, supply chain actors can be more visible, transparent and efficient.

This enables better repurposing of waste, uncovering opportunities to invest in and invent new alternatives. Analysing waste could generate meaningful evidence on the habits of consumers, too.

Topolytics is one such rising data-driven player. By collecting, aggregating and analysing data on waste, they empower actors across the plastic waste value chain to better collect, manage and recycle plastic waste more strategically.

Also Read: Southeast Asia is in plastic waste crisis, and these 16 sustainable startups strive to turn things around

What is plastic waste worth?

It may seem overkill to invest so much time and resources into collecting materials that have already been discarded. But plastic waste is only garbage when it is treated as such.

Our oceans are littered with plastic that is destroying ecosystems and filling the food chain with harmful microplastics – but this plastic waste could be generating profits.

The World Bank estimates that S$8 billion of value is lost each year by not recycling plastics in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand alone.

91 per cent of Southeast Asian consumers are concerned about plastic waste, but less than half are currently willing to adjust their purchasing patterns. Manufacturers have an opportunity to meet consumer needs while reducing their waste footprint.

The field is still open for leaders in recycled plastic to emerge. Some innovators are experimenting with new ways to repurpose non-recyclable plastics to create new products from building materials to furniture and accessories.

Plastic waste is the perfect case study to demonstrate the power of a circular economy- while the plastic value chain is currently a disconnected series of islands, looping them together would meet the material needs of consumers, workers and producers alike.

To that end, Closing The Data Gap Challenge, an initiative run by The Circulate Initiative, in partnership with The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, aims to support decision-makers and other stakeholders to create a better quality of data and advance a more inclusive and effective circular economy.

Data intervention, today

When it comes to plastic waste, the opportunities for innovation loom large – but so does the threat of failing to intervene. The plastic waste crisis, left as is, harms the environment and the health of all organisms living in it, from humans in cities to rural farm animals and even underwater coral reefs.

Also Read: One man’s trash is another’s gold: How Tridi Oasis plans to transform plastic waste management

The big picture is clear: plastic waste is poisoning the planet. But with better data, policy action, corporate change and consumer support, we can create new solutions that go beyond solving the issue and create new opportunities.

By understanding the nature and scale of the data gap, we can take concrete steps to solve it.

Editor’s note: e27 aims to foster thought leadership by publishing views from the community. Share your opinion by submitting an article, video, podcast, or infographic

Join our e27 Telegram group, FB community, or like the e27 Facebook page

Image credit: marcobonfanti

The post Throwaway gold: How data can tap into the unrealised potential in plastic waste appeared first on e27.

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