The future of waste management goes by digitalisation

The digitalisation of the waste value chain is key to create value. Miguel Varela reflects here on the latest policy changes at European level and the new development model that is committed to climate neutrality and digital transformation.

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We are not saying anything new when we say that this decade that is starting in a turbulent way rests on two fundamental pillars: digitalization and sustainability. For example, the words of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen"The challenges of our generation, the digital and green "sister" transitions, are more urgent now than at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis".

The strategic framework is more than favourable for reorienting the future of the old continent by giving way to a new development model that is committed to climate neutrality and the digital transformation of activities. There we have the Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan and the European Green Industrial Plan.

The speed at which digitalisation, data processing and use of data technologies are developing is opening up new opportunities in the more traditional sectors. This is the case of the waste value chain, an activity in which the application of information technologies poses a disruptive horizon and enormous growth.

All actors in the chain, from organisations that produce and generate waste as a result of their activity to others that manage these resources, have in software and technology first-rate allies to generate value, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimise their environmental risks and optimise their resources, resulting in more competitive, profitable and environmentally positive organisations. 

The European regulatory tsunami related to the waste vector is no less significant. The control of waste traceability is becoming increasingly rigorous and strict, from the source to the final treatment. The obligations on waste producers, who must ensure proper waste management, are also increasing. Not to mention the pressures from consumers and markets. 

Taking into account all these favourable winds, the question is: What is the status of the digitisation of the waste value chain? 

Digitisation of the waste sector at country level: the Spanish case 

The National Environmental Congress(CONAMA) is an event that promotes an open dialogue to foster sustainable development in Spain and Latin America. This forum, undoubtedly the most important in terms of sustainability in Spanish-speaking countries, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2022. 

In this edition, TEIMAS coordinated a technical committee in which more than 30 professionals and experts from the sector participated with the idea of analysing the state of digitisation of the waste vector from a global perspective, that is, taking into account the different agents involved in the entire waste cycle: producers, managers, administration and extended responsibility systems. 

To support this work, TEIMAS carried out two studies, one related to the digitisation of waste management and treatment and the other focused on waste production in Spanish companies.

Waste managers have been the central agent in the waste digitization process, investing in software tools to automate processes such as waste traceability control, customer relations, the organisation of removal routes or the generation of regulatory documentation. Despite the obvious environmental and economic benefits of digitalisation, it is surprising to note that less than 30% of the companies surveyed, out of a total of 508, used specialised software for their activity.

In the case of waste-producing companies, 265 large corporations were surveyed, and only 16% of which claim to have aspecificsoftware solutionfor the control of waste produced at the various points where they operate. 

The most common reasons for non-digitisation are related to lack of financial resources, lack of perceived need, prioritisation of other more urgent projects, outsourcing of part of their needs or the use of other digital solutions such as spreadsheets to keep track of the waste vector. 

‍Smart waste management and the circular economy will be digital or it will not be

‍As we can see, the digital transformation of the waste value chain has much room for improvement. The world is changing faster and faster and the paradigms we took for granted are shifting as technology advances. Examples include the popularisation of artificial intelligence through tools such as Chat GPT or the potential of quantum computing just around the corner.

It is difficult to talk about industry 4.0 or 5.0, internet of things, blockchain or artificial intelligence if the actors in the waste value chain are still in a 2.0 state of digitalisation. A sector such as the waste sector, which is so important in terms of its potential to mitigate climate change and protect people's health, cannot afford to miss the technology train and must therefore embark on a global digital transformation process.

Excel can no longer hold everything. It is time to put software capabilities at the service of intelligent management, improving data quality, automating the control of information flows and traceability, the cornerstone of waste, favouring compliance with regulations and, above all, making it possible to extract quality knowledge to develop zero waste, circular economy and climate change mitigation policies

The demands of markets and people are increasing: it is no longer enough to look green, you have to be green. The new scenario demands sustainable and environmentally friendly companies. Organisations that go beyond the environmental minimum and are aware of their role in this new world order.A paradigm shift from the current "waste problem" to "resource opportunity" through digitalisation.  


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