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Technology as an incentive for stronger recycling rates

It’s unclear when we’ll realise the true impact that Covid-19 had, or indeed will have, on humankind. However, one of its many lasting legacies is the distraction it posed against climate change. The question is; how does this impact the circular economy and recycling?

Column by Suwar Mert, ceo and co-founder of Bower

‘Nature is healing’ amassed thousands of hashtags across every social media platform as people marvelled at deserted cities being reclaimed by animals and wildlife. Despite emissions decreasing because of reduced human activity, the relentless advance of climate change was not halted, nor even slowed down, according to the UN

During the most disruptive year-and-a-half in living memory, most were – unsurprisingly – too concerned with vaccinations and the latest lockdown rules, as well as the health of themselves and their loved ones, to consider the health of our planet. Now that the distraction is largely over, it’s time we re-focussed our attention and realise the role we play as individuals, and how we can harness the power of technology to enable change. 

Power of individual responsibility

The threat of climate change has never been higher, with news stories and academic reports published daily. Why then did recycling rates drop by 1.2% from 2019 to 2020? Generally speaking, we all know that recycling is important; that we should follow recycling instructions and that certain items belong in certain bins. Very few people admit to being ‘anti-recycling’. 

A third of UK residents claim to find recycling complicated, resulting in one-sixth not doing it at all. This is despite the average person in the UK throwing away an estimated four tonnes of waste each year. 

Ultimately, recycling can be confusing, with areas having different coloured recycling bins, collection schedules and rules. Add to that feelings of scepticism around how much individuals can do, particularly when you hear that 100 companies produce 90% of all single-use plastic globally, and it can feel quite futile.

As always, education is key, both in terms of explaining to people how to recycle, and the difference they can make by doing so. According to Recycling Bins, recycling one tin can could save enough energy to power a TV for three hours, a recycled glass bottle could power a laptop for 30 minutes and a single plastic bottle could keep a lightbulb going for three hours. That might not sound like a lot but, as we encourage more people to do their bit, the impact becomes exponentially greater.

We feel passionately that incentivisation is the best way to encourage people to recycle more. Lidl recently introduced a bottle deposit scheme that offers customers vouchers for recycling drink bottles in-store, while Bracknell Forest Council in the south of England introduced benefits for residents who recycle and reduced residual waste by 1 000 tonnes within a year. 

The role innovation must play 

With oil companies planning to spend EUR 400 billion over the next five years on plastic production, it’s clear that we also need to turn to technological innovation to reduce waste, because as humans there’s only so much we can do.

P&G recently developed PureCycle Technologies, which works to separate contaminants from plastic waste, radio frequency tags across Europe allow local authorities to track recyclable waste, while sorting tech companies like Recycleye are using artificial intelligence (ARI) and robotics to turn waste into resources. 

Technology is also playing a major role in encouraging and incentivising individuals to recycle. Apps have rapidly become commonplace in every aspect of our lives, from communication to paying bills, but they can also provide so much more than convenience. If harnessed properly, digital tools can make a genuine impact on reducing global warming by cementing recycling within people’s daily routines. 

Apps like Bower, for example, give monetary rewards to users whenever they scan and deposit an item at a recycling point. When you consider that 170 tonnes of carbon dioxide – the equivalent to the emissions released by 252 cars driven for a year – has already been saved through this form of app-based incentivisation and the impact other technological developments are having, it gives hope that we can turn our recycling issues around. It’s still within our power to create a healthier, more sustainable planet, we just need everyone to play their part.

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