Mike Jackson Prismm Environmental web sizeHow could technological disruption affect the recycling industry?

By Mike Jackson, managing director

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the vulnerability of the recycling industry to a disruptor that comes along and destabilises, or possibly destroys existing business models.

Could this happen? Well yes, it could.

There are plenty of examples where this has already happened in other industries.

Take the examples of the likes of Uber disrupting taxi services, or Airbnb changing the model of short-term accommodation at the expense of hotels.

We have also seen changes to industries that directly affect the waste industry. Take the example of newspapers and magazines. Most people now get their news and information from websites or social media resulting in radically less waste paper and less demand for waste paper.

Most people now download or stream music resulting in significant drops in plastic waste produced from CDs.

There are two ways in which I see a potential end to the existing status quo for the recycling industry.

The first is through advanced automation, while the second is through using technology to join networks of services together at the touch of a button.

Looking at automation first, how could this work in the recycling industry?

I’m sure by now we have all seen or heard about some of the amazing things the latest Tesla cars can do in terms of self-driving. Automation of vehicles is already underway in the waste industry as well. Volvo has been trialling a self-driving refuse truck in an urban environment.

But Volvo has also been working with students to develop a drone that could replace the people who work on the bins.

If you have automated systems that are designed for efficiency, do we even need the council or its contractor to collect the bins every week or fortnight or whatever? Would it make sense if an automated system using bin sensors calculated when bins needed to be collected and sent a self-driving vehicle and its drones to collect them?

Could these also be designed to collect from purer streams and less-pure streams? If waste items had to be scanned when placed in the bin, essentially, the system could understand where the best sorted material was based and design a route to collect the best quality material for the market.

If we then use technologies to bring network services together at the touch of a button, potentially, the householder or business could have a choice of who collected their material from an app. You could tender based on your own personal data of your material and collection history who would provide the most revenue or cheapest collection (especially if pay-as-you-throw was introduced for the householder). Ultimately, each household could manage their own waste costs and be rewarded for good recycling. There may be no need for a council to get involved in waste collections any further. Especially if new technology regarding home gasification of waste to create energy for the home becomes commercially viable.

But who is likely to introduce such systems? There are different options.

One is a start-up that trials automated systems with businesses initially and proves so successful that it provides a compelling case to change the domestic model too. It could be that these start-ups provide the technology, but like taxi-firm Karhoo use a network of existing businesses to provide the infrastructure.

Alternatively, waste management companies may see the future coming, and look to cut costs of labour by introducing automated vehicles, drones and enhanced sorting technology. They may work with developers and others to create consumer or business apps to help them understand how a material can be recycled.

However, it could also be the producers themselves that develop this system. The likes of Nestlé have already developed infrastructure to collect the aluminium from used Nespresso coffee pods from householders, and this is a model that could become more prevalent as manufacturers look to recover valuable materials. You must wonder why Amazon haven’t already started taking back valuable cardboard and plastic packaging when dropping off new items to customers.

It could be if we go down this route, we end up with a completely fluid model where there are no contracts. This could bring new casualised entrants to the market, but could also see established skip companies and larger waste management companies bidding for material on these platforms.

Overall, there is huge potential for disruptive change in the way we collect our materials and this could happen to us very quickly. The question will be, do we embrace it or fight it?

The lesson from other sectors is that it is best to embrace it, accept it and find opportunity from it. Those that have tended to fight it, have tended to lose out.

But that also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for our favoured options and try to develop a market that works best for us.

All this and I haven’t even got onto cryptocurrencies and blockchains yet! That will be my next blog.


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