Waste as a Currency
Laura Del Vecchio
© Kalyakan @ stock.adobe.com
Plastic first appeared in the early 1900s after Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented Bakelite, a fireproof material, marking the beginning of the plastic age. The creation of plastic seemed to be an opportunity both in economic and labor terms because of its ability to substitute more expensive materials (e.g., iron and glass) and by its considerably cheap production costs. Since the beginning of plastic production, the annual global output increased expectably, which has already surpassed eight billion metric tons worldwide, according to Statista. This number is anticipated to increase in the upcoming decades.
Plastic production enabled several other technological developments to occur (for instance, the creation of lighter and cheaper electronics, allowing the general population to purchase goods once limited to a privileged fraction of society), however, plastic products' lifecycle also became a severe problem worldwide. Most plastic units produced more than 80 years ago remain unrecycled, often ending in landfills and water distribution pipelines, thus creating dramatic environmental damages.
At the beginning of 2018, China (which in the preceding years was the leader in plastic waste export) announced that it would not take plastic waste from foreign countries. This made leading plastic-waste-exporting nations to find new destinations for their plastic garbage and ways to not have plastic accumulate on their lands. Instead of limiting the processing of plastic only to recycling (which became widely available in the past years), waste as a currency took the stage by displaying several types of business models that generate revenue through garbage. Rather than considering waste as something disposable, waste as currency gives waste a second chance through economic incentives.
Waste as a Currency: Technological Solutions Involved
Waste as a currency is a broad field that encompasses several technological solutions. In short, this trend enables local communities to convert plastic waste into economic incentives by adding value to non-recyclable litter. But how do they do it? Some companies process waste with the help of Machine Vision Waste Sorting technology to detect recyclable debris and then separate it from non-recyclable ones. These automatic machines sort, pick and place items at a speed of over 100 pieces per minute. The platform can distinguish materials by color, clarity, and opacity, along with other factors, as they pass through a conveyor belt. Because it is powered by machine vision, the robots can target and process a vast range of metals, components, plastics, and more.
Once the plastic or non-recyclable garbage is detected, the materials are processed into pellets and sold to companies above market value as a recycled raw material. The individuals, commonly called 'recyclers' are paid by the amount of garbage they bring to the unit centers through digital coins accepted in local businesses or blockchain coins associated with businesses and companies that accept the payment in exchange for goods, such as food, fuel, or vouchers for schooling, public transportation, or mobile phone charging. The monetization of waste takes place through a Blockchain Certificate that players in the ledger trade the 'plastic waste coins' at a locally run collection center for cash, vouchers for daily essentials, or other digital tokens within the distributed ledger.
WASTED: In the Netherlands, specifically in the neighborhood of Noord in Amsterdam, WASTED, a company founded by CITIES Foundation, started to encourage plastic waste recycling and upcycling. Their solution encourages citizens to return household plastic waste to their central units scattered throughout the city. In exchange for plastic waste, the 'recyclers' receive discounts and other bonuses at local businesses in the neighborhood.
Plastic Bank: Also an innovative solution taking place in the Netherlands, Plastic Bank focuses on alleviating poverty by making plastic waste a currency. Their solution involves the IBM Blockchain, where associated partners convert the weight of plastic into an online token accepted in several local businesses and services. The program has expanded to five countries: Brazil, Haiti, Indonesia, Peru, and the Philippines.
Opportunities & Challenges
Even if this solution is sound for helping tackle environmental pollution, the main goal is to make a social impact by providing decent opportunities for low-income households, the so-called “unbankable” populations who might not have access to a banking account to deposit and grow their money, or even conventional loans. This economic opportunity also leads to a considerable change in behavior where consumers can become increasingly more aware of how their habits and the impact their consumption produces on the environment. In addition, this current push for recycling helps reinforce a positive image of the brand for consumers, allowing previously wasteful brands to align themselves with eco-conscious customers.
However, the possibility of finding value within trash can also lead to some problems too. Corrupt governments, for example, could start to produce waste as a means of accumulating the reward that comes with it or obligating entire communities to make as much trash as possible. The real question that lies within Waste as a Currency is how recycling solutions can help change current consumption behavior? And not simply put a patch on something that needs a deeper level of comprehension and action. Yet, with the constant evolution of remanufacturing techniques, the overproduction of waste could become a means to support remanufacturing practices and methods, and further counteract the possible threats coming from malfunctioning governments.