Blockchain, waste management, and the circular economy

3 minutes read

Waste management is not going to excite many people. And why should it? We usually regard waste as something to be discarded. Material that is no longer useful or required. Quite frankly, waste is something we want to get rid of and forget.

However, without proper management, the waste derived from our modern lifestyles is the most visible sign of our impact upon the natural world. To limit this pollution, we are all encouraged to take responsibility for our waste. Whether we are individuals, communities, businesses, or nations, the incentive should be to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

But how can we have confidence in our recycling systems? How do we reduce the amount of waste we create? And crucially, is it time to redefine what we mean by waste?

Waste is not just the physical materials left over from production and consumption. Time, energy and money, can all be wasted too. So reducing waste makes practical sense. It can increase economic competitiveness, reduce environmental degradation, improve productivity and ensure future sustainability. It is these principles that lie at the heart of the circular economy.

A circular economy aims to eliminate waste across the entire supply chain. Circular systems operate as closed loops, enabling the continual use and reuse of resources. The input of raw materials, and the use of energy from non-renewable sources, are minimised and eliminated. Essentially, this means that a circular economy decouples economic growth from resource use.

In recent years, the drive towards circular economic models has accelerated. Businesses have taken the lead in developing economically profitable structures, capturing materials that would otherwise end up in landfill, and recovering heat and energy that would otherwise be lost to the atmosphere (see for example this list by the World Economic Forum). Such developments supported through national and international policies, new legislation, financial incentives, and regulatory frameworks. China, for example, implemented its Law for the Promotion of the Circular Economy in 2009, while the European Commission launched its first Circular Economy Action Plan in 2015. These policy developments and numerous others taking place on the international stage implement the frameworks needed to transition from a linear to a circular economy.

While policy instruments aim to encourage good practice and legislation can ensure compliance, the global reach of our production, distribution and consumption networks make our complex waste management systems vulnerable to mismanagement and open to possible corruption. For example, the EU has faced criticism in recent years over its export of low-grade waste plastics to non-OECD countries. A lack of knowledge about what happens to these plastics, and the possibility that they end up in landfill or incineration, potentially leaking toxic substances to the environment, led to criticism that the EU was exporting its waste management responsibilities to countries less able to deal with them. In response, the EU implemented a ban on such exports from the start of 2021.

With proper mechanisms in place, integrating waste management systems into a global circular economy is not in itself inherently problematic. But we must be confident that the legislative frameworks and financial incentives we implement are free from mismanagement and abuse. Crucial to this is guaranteeing transparency and accountability in the monitoring, reporting and enforcement mechanisms.

Blockchain technology is already proving key to ensuring the integrity desired. Its decentralised, tamper-proof structure offers transparency and security. And an efficient way to connect all the players in a product’s value chain. By linking together producers, distributors and consumers, we can leverage blockchain and ensure accountability for the management of ‘waste’. This accountability provides the confidence to reward those who embed environmental sustainability into their business practices, and it incentivises others to engage with the process. Ultimately, increasing confidence in the system will facilitate the transition to a circular economy, reduce waste, and lead to a more sustainable future for us all.

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