There’s a huge buzz around blockchain at the moment, predominantly in the financial services industry – but could it also have a transformational impact on waste management?
Many Local Authorities are keeping an eye on emerging refuse collection technologies, to see how innovation can make waste management cheaper, easier and more effective. Following on from our recent blog post on smart technologies that will change waste management, let’s take a closer look at how the blockchain could shape the way municipal waste is handled…
What is the blockchain?
For those of you unfamiliar with the blockchain, it is a digital network that allows information to be shared and distributed, without being duplicated. Unlike many current computer systems, it doesn’t hold information in a single location, but decentralises data so that it can be accurately accessed by more than one person.
The easiest way to understand how the blockchain works in real terms is to imagine a company is using a spreadsheet to record their data. If this spreadsheet is being managed manually, chances are that company will end up with multiple, inconsistent versions of the same document, saved to different peoples’ computers.
In contrast, the blockchain effectively takes the original spreadsheet and creates several, identical versions that work together, automatically updating simultaneously when edits are made. Every piece of new data it receives needs to be validated and agreed by this network of hubs before it can be approved, and the data is synchronised before the change takes place.
This means that whenever someone accesses information stored on the blockchain, it is always up to date, and everyone is looking at a single version of the truth.
How can the blockchain improve municipal waste management?
Until now, most of the use cases for blockchain have centred around financial innovation; cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, for example. However, because it is an infrastructure rather than a product, it can be used as the basis for technology in any industry.
In fact, blockchain’s capabilities in waste management have now escalated to a discussion of national importance. In February this year, the UK government announced a number of R&D pilot projects intended to address the tracking of commercial and municipal waste, with up to £80,000 available to each pilot. If successful, some of these initiatives will be selected to progress to the next stage, with further government funding available.
One of the five projects to be awarded support is a technology company using the blockchain to make users accountable for their waste. With this particular piece of tech, the intention is that all collections will be recorded and digitally time stamped, creating an audit trail that enables companies and authorities to better understand how rubbish is disposed of, and make smarter decisions in light of this information.
This concept of traceability is critical to the future of waste management. Present systems do not always make it easy to track the original location or final destination of unwanted materials, which means organisations do not feel accountable for items that are unsafely, unethically or improperly disposed of.
As the blockchain creates permanent transactional records in real-time, it can trace the journey of all refuse collections, attaching a specific round to end locations. This way, theoretically, absolutely every item thrown away or recycled can be scanned and monitored throughout the waste management chain.
How can it build trust and reduce waste?
Another key benefit of the blockchain in waste disposal is – as we’ve already mentioned in our description of how the blockchain works – its ability to provide an accurate representation of the truth.
By its nature, blockchain is decentralised; no single device or server holds data. Information is synchronised across multiple hubs in the network, which affects the way changes are verified.
When a transaction or update occurs, it needs to be agreed and approved by more than one hub in the network. This means that data has to be consistent in order to be validated – it would be difficult, for example, for waste contractors to doctor the weight of rubbish being processed – so authorities can trust that they are being offered an accurate service.
In addition, as blockchain is a digital solution, there is no need to produce physical paperwork. This makes it much more sustainable and environmentally friendly for managing waste workflows, not to mention quicker.
Deconstructing the complexities of the blockchain
Blockchain is a new and complex concept, but it can potentially help municipal waste management technologies run more effectively. And Local Authorities using this tech don’t have to understand the blockchain’s intricacies to benefit.
As the blockchain is universally accessible and can be adapted to support different forms of technology, it is the ideal way to build systems that make authorities responsible and accountable for the way their waste is disposed of. As it becomes more mainstream, blockchain will help to both reduce overall levels of rubbish and ensure that what is thrown away is managed effectively – without necessarily inflating the cost of collection.