Innovation in the waste sector is alive and kicking

6th October 2017 Posted by

Innovation in the waste management sector is alive and kicking. Such was the take-home message from the ‘Hackathon’ organised by London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) in collaboration with RWM and industry partner SUEZ recycling and recovery UK, with a prize co-sponsored by LWARB and SUEZ.

Hackathons are, according to one definition, “creativity marathons. Thoughts become things. Attendees work to create a hack, be it an app, hardware or something completely different”. Hackathons are specifically technology related: this particular event was showcased at the RWM 2017 conference and exhibition.

Targeting small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), SUEZ offered the following challenge: Using growing trends of mobile and Internet of Things (IoT) in delivering solutions for improving circularity, how can consumers be helped to make educated product purchase, reuse and recycling decisions? The aims were to:

  1. Influence consumer purchasing decisions to help them buy products with an ability to repair, exchange or recycle.
  2. Develop an app that helps with the collection of small volumes or specialist waste or redundant products.
  3. Inform consumers of how materials can be recycled and whether their local municipal collection services can collect and recycle those materials.

Four entries made the short list to pitch their ideas on the day. A web platform and app to connect customers to approved waste management companies for services such as skip hire; a surplus food donation platform; a platform through which unwanted goods can find a home. And the winner – an online, C2C and B2C gadget rental marketplace for high-tech gadgets such as cameras, drones, and virtual reality equipment. The judges felt that Tryatec Technologies’ rental “try before you buy” business idea was the most thoroughly thought through, financially credible and self-sustaining. It also has the potential to truly disrupt the conventional “buy blind and regret later” consumer model. We wish Tryatec’s founders and their new venture well.

While Tryatec won by virtue of its innovative business model, the other short-listed entries highlighted a particular aspect of exchange, sharing and distribution platforms that is often neglected. Many of these are run by volunteers from third sector organisations dedicated to the cause of the circular economy, passionate in their desire to do right by the environment, and give unwanted products a second life. However, they operate on a shoestring budget, relying on donations and the free giving of time rather than potentially restricting access and participation by charging for their services. All aiming to build local community solidarity, and even if operating nationally, tend to develop and expand through locally relevant networks and websites. Nationally, the aggregated social and environmental benefits of such third sector, volunteer-based businesses has never been computed, and hence as a contribution towards the circular economy, has been undervalued by both central and local governments.

With public sector funding streams under severe pressure, the challenge is how to ensure a more sustainable financial future for such ventures, in terms of a steady cash flow and developmental capital. One solution would be to charge for their services, and while this runs the risk of alienating would-be users of modest means, many third sector organisations may have to bow to the inevitable. Without a secure revenue stream none of these businesses would attract the attention of conventional financiers.

With no obvious solution to this conundrum, the UK runs the risk of emasculating a highly effective enabler of the most difficult-to-action components of the circular economy: waste prevention and product reuse.

Recognising the environmental and social value of these organisations and formally integrating them into the resource cycle should be high on the to-do list of BEIS and Defra in respect of their resource-related strategies.

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