Plastic Waste Management Using Blockchain Technology
The use of blockchain is commonly associated with cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, but recent pilot projects demonstrate its potential in plastic waste management. The plastic waste chain is a long and convoluted one that can be difficult to track. The plastic waste problem and the harrowing statistics on how of the immense amount of plastic waste produced, only a small percentage gets properly recycled are well known. Most of these plastic objects that are not recycled end up in landfills, being shipped to developing countries that lack the infrastructure to recycle it or polluting our oceans and natural environment. Some efforts at finding plastic pollution solutions are looking for ways to use technology to reduce waste. Projects are beginning to use blockchain technology to add more transparency and traceability to the whole process from collection, processing, and repurposing. Blockchains store information across a network of computers. They are decentralized so that no one person owns the network or can corrupt it, but everyone can have access and use it. Blockchain uses cryptography to make sure records cannot be counterfeited or changed. This would allow certified recycled plastic to be better traced and prevent instances of greenwashing and material mixing.
More countries and companies are increasingly making sustainability commitments to reduce plastic waste, incorporate more recycled content in products, and use easier to recycle materials such as PET and HDPE. As projects and policies like these are implemented, such as the European Commission’s Circular Economy action plan and the Global Commitments through the Ellen Macarthur foundation, the tracking and monitoring of waste is essential to measuring compliance and informing such laws and policies. As a virtual distributed ledger, Blockchains can permanently store data that is verifiable and auditable by enabling smart contracts that automate transactions without intermediaries. Currently, Blockchain applications within the waste management sector focus mainly on payment or rewards facilitation and the monitoring and tracking waste.
The work done by The Plastic Bank is an example of the first application. The Plastic Bank incentivizes individuals to collect plastic waste using blockchain rewards, with a focus on developing countries where plastic waste is ending up in the ocean. Individuals can bring the collected waste to certain collection points where it is weighed before payment is provided to the individual through a blockchain-based banking application. With the second type of application, data about the waste that is collected and transferred is recorded. The French national railway, Arep, used this technology to monitor the amount, type, and frequency of waste collected to optimize waste management. Another similar application is with sustainability consulting and analysis companies. Auditors could use blockchain to analyze data and identify organizations or individuals that are not properly managing their waste and distribute fines dependent on the laws in place or help them improve sustainable waste practices to increase plastic recycling. Another way in which blockchain technology can incentivize proper waste management is by making this data accessible to the public, putting companies’ reputations at risk if they don’t do their part to sustainably manage and minimize their waste.
Another project forging a partnership between Blockchain and waste management is the creation of the cryptocurrency JellyCoin in Campo Viera, Argentina. The founder, Ivan Zubilewicz aims to improve local waste collection by changing behavior through community-driven incentive. In Argentina, some waste collection is done by individual pickers who sort garbage and take plastic to recycling centers. The idea is that JellyCoin would offer compensation for these collectors, including how far they have traveled.
Similarly, in India the nonprofit group CITAG (Citizen Involved & Technology Assisted Governance) is trying to use blockchain to make waste management more efficient and keep more accurate logs. In New York, RecycleGo believes that “what the world needs is scalable solutions, broad scalable solutions in terms of tracking, in terms of attaching data to human activity, in terms of really allowing social impact behavior to be monitored, measured and credited”.
They will be testing the idea through projects such as a beach cleanup in Miami. The idea is that products made from plastic can have QR codes or RFID tags to be tracked throughout their life cycle. In this case, QR codes on plastic bottles will be scanned, and bottles will be added to and tracked on blockchain as they are broken down into raw materials and turned into new merchandise. In Nigeria, these codes will disclose the chain of custody as the materials move through the recycling process. Similarly, in Ghana the system will be used to track fishing nets lost in the ocean, known as “ghost nets” as they are collected, baled, and turned back into nylon nets. In addition to supporting blockchain accountability and tracking, QR codes and RFID tags also have the potential to aid recycle waste services with the collection and sorting process and make it more efficient to support the different types of plastic recycling. If packaging and other plastic products had these tags, it would prevent the wrong polymers going into the wrong machinery and help ensure the quality and type of plastic in bales is what it is supposed to be.
However, there still exist some obstacles that make widespread adoption of such technology more complicated. One issue is that QR codes and RFID tags are only useful if they can be read, which is not guaranteed if the waste is broken up between the time of disposal and collection. To address this, industrial waste can be measured and distributed in batches per ton. Another challenge is the difficulty to edit data. Although this is a positive aspect in the sense that it can prevent fraudulent changes from being made, it would also require robust protocols when entering data to ensure it is correct. Despite these challenges, this type of technology offers a variety of tools to help increase plastic recycling and more towards a circular plastic economy, however, it’s a tool that needs to go hand in hand with policy, infrastructure, and real effort to reduce unnecessary plastic waste and make products recyclable—it is not a solution on its own.
Blockchain could serve as a tool to incentivize sustainable waste management while also helping monitor and ensure compliance to new policies and laws going into effect. However, for it to be useful, proper infrastructure and collection strategies need to be in place to ensure waste gets collected and there are parties that can be held responsible for their waste management practices. It is increasingly being valued as a tool for recycled plastic trading as it can increase the traceability and transparency of these raw materials. However, a more uniform sorting, plastic recycling certification, and labeling system within the recycled plastic market is needed to properly scale its implementation. In the meantime, transparency and traceability can be sought after using platforms like MikaCycle that vet and work with trusted suppliers to ensure quality products and secure payments with a variety of recycled products available.