The rapid technological changes in recent years have increasingly made digital and ICT skills a requirement in most occupations and sectors. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the requirement became a need, thus accelerating the transition to the digital age. A wide range of solutions were adopted that facilitated remote communication and cooperation, enabling businesses in many sectors to continue operating despite the circumstances. It also demonstrated the importance of acquiring essential digital skills such as email and instant messaging, word processing, social media, web-based research, data entry and handling and behaving safely and legally online.
Digital tools and services are constantly being created to provide solutions for any topic imaginable and this includes the transition to a circular economy.
In a circular economy, the life cycle of products is extended so that they may continue to play part of the economy for as long as possible and to avoid or reduce waste to a minimum. This is achieved through repair, reuse, recycling, sharing and leasing, to ensure the products or materials they are made from keep creating value.
Digital tools and processes can be employed to ensure resources are used in the most efficient way possible. They can also predict and address issues throughout the entire lifecycle of a product from its design and manufacturing, through to it being used and ultimately repurposed or remanufactured. It further makes possible for information related to materials to be available for better reuse, repair and recycling by consumers and recyclers.
As it was the case with other projects under the Regional Funds, the Circular Based Waste Management project began as lockdowns were enforced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, where businesses resorted to remote work and travel was limited. Project activities that relied on travel and contact with the public, were replaced by online activities. The public was engaged through surveys and creative competitions that were possible to carry through online. Learnings that were meant to take place by visiting sites, were initially replaced by webinars giving partners and their invitees the opportunity to hear from experts from across Europe about best circular practices for waste management from their homes. As the restrictions eased and the world opened to travel again, project partners took part in study tours that gave the opportunity to experience first-hand what they had learned about and more.
During both the webinars and study tours, the importance of digitalisation has been highlighted recurringly, with various initiatives taking place to develop solutions that can accelerate the adoption of circular practices. Such solutions are examining the entire value chain while making meaningful use of information collected in order to minimise waste and achieve optimal use of resources.
These examples make clear that digitalisation and adoption of digital skills are imperative for successful implementation of a circular economy. Brief descriptions of a few examples are offered next with links to our project articles about them.
In one example from Norway, the waste management company sends a notification on a mobile app to customers when the bins are to be emptied. In areas where residents use shared bins, these can be opened with an access card and the frequency with which they are used is recorded. Such systems help the company understand which fractions of waste are discarded most and how much and when residents are using the bins. In another example, a software solution is helping reduce waste and increase recycling by rewarding citizens that sort their waste well, based on the data collected on what is being discarded and sorted.
In Upper Austria, a number projects examine the role digitalisation plays in making recycling easier, raising awareness as well as developing business models. One initiative by the Linz Institute of Technology, located at the Johannes Kepler University, combines education, research and business development through smart polymer processing. It considers the entire life cycle of plastics to ensure quality performance and management through software tools. Plastics is among the main industries in the region of Upper Austria and as such, initiatives are taking on the challenge to solve the issue of plastic waste and its recycling by focusing on the entire lifecycle of plastics.
In the Rioja region of Spain, the first centre for innovation for a Circular Economy has been established, where new ideas and solutions for implementing circular practices in waste management are supported and developed. One of these is a digital simulation of a waste treatment plant which helps optimise its operations while allowing to predict outcomes depending on how parameters change. In other projects, the potential of blockchain and digital watermarks are explored to be able to trace a material back to its origin, thus ensuring material quality.
Another software tool helps predict the environmental impact of packaging containers and gives information on how it will behave after it is discarded and reincorporated as a new product. It also gives suggestions for improvement during the design stage to make the container more sustainable. Furthermore, an online platform is developed that uses data collected from waste collection operations and combines them with municipality demographic data to optimise waste collection routes and resources. Citizen behaviour, gamification and incentive programmes are also being studied where with the use of mobile phone applications citizens are encouraged to actively participate in recycling schemes in exchange for rewards.
In Ljubljana, Slovenia, the first capital in Europe to declare the zero waste goal, digitalisation is seen as a key enabler for the city and wider region to achieve its Circular Economy Strategy. The local waste management company uses the pay as you throw systems, where the price depends on the volume of the container and number of people living in a household. Citizens have access to an online platform where the entire process of waste collection is transparent, and they can see how much waste they are throwing and are billed for.
In Scotland, UK, circular practices are connected to social issues. One such issue tackled, is digital poverty. Initiatives are in place to collect and repair laptops among other old or unwanted electronic items. Thes are then gifted to people that cannot afford one or sold at a much lower cost.
Information has become easily available through technology, collected and consumed as a commodity, as such, our modern age is regarded as the Information Age. The examples above offer a glimpse on the influence digitalisation and data collection will have on the waste management sector and the wider adoption of circular practices. They also demonstrate that new job roles are being created with a high demand for digital skills beyond the essential ones. Skills in data collection and analysis, content creation, programming for web and applications development, coding and user experience design are and will continue to be heavily sought, as reliance on digital tools is becoming mainstream in most sectors, including waste management.
Circular Based Waste Management Project – http://circular-waste.eu