This four-part series is aimed at using the open source and collaborative nature of blockchain to tackle issues plaguing human consumption and improving society for future generations. We hope that this series can invoke anyone to move quickly on use cases with high potential to improve social good.
From the food we eat to the clothing we purchase, we must maximize the value from every product, extend its lifecycle beyond single-use, and properly dispose of materials at its end of life. If not, polluted waters, contaminated soils, and toxic air will pollute the entire social fabric of society. In Part I (this piece), we discuss how the government can create markets for recycling contamination and rewards via blockchain, which will reduce consumer confusion and boost recycling participation. Part II focuses on using blockchain to track hazardous and toxic materials from the point of purchase to ensure proper handling to prevent fires, death, and pollution. Part III looks at government tax credits to expedite the adoption of recycling and composting programs by businesses and using blockchain to verify compliance, traceability, and program participation. Lastly, in Part IV we discuss Zero Waste initiatives that cities, businesses, and facilities can implement to reduce the carbon-footprint of their entire supply chains.
Part I Recycling Contamination and Tokenized Rewards
Transforming waste to wealth represents a staggering $4.5 trillion USD in estimated economic opportunity, also known as the Circular Economy. But the barriers to prevent materials from entering our landfills and incinerators are huge. The amount of recyclables actually collected, processed, and sold back to market is frighteningly low and requires different solutions. Countries, states, and municipalities have implemented bans on single-use materials, and reuse models are becoming more widely adopted, but, for every person who reuses a product, hundreds more toss out valuable material. Our materials don’t always get recycled due to contamination. Indeed, blockchain and emerging technologies have the potential to deliver unmatched reverse supply chain transparency, provide contamination data, and distribute insights that were previously unknown.
Do you know whether your local Material Recovery Facility (MRF) has the equipment to process the material you attempt to recycle? Do you know if there is a market for it? Do you know when a truckload of recyclables is rejected due to contamination and sent to disposal? Contamination can take on numerous meanings, but here we are specifically talking about putting materials that are not accepted in your local recycling program into your recycling bin or cart. Contamination is not just bad for the environment because it sends precious natural resources to waste. It also creates dangerous working conditions because workers must climb into heavy-machinery and remove the plastic bags, cords, and other tangled materials that jam and damage expensive sorting equipment. The scenario below provides greater detail.
Photo credit: Created by Housecodies
Scenario #1 – Carol’s Curbside Confusion
Let’s assume Carol and several of her well intentioned neighbors place plastic bags, Styrofoam with leftovers inside, and #5 clamshell containers into the recycling cart simply because they have a recycling symbol. On social media she sees people recycling these items in the cities where they live, but she’s not quite sure whether she is recycling correctly at home. Even if she is unsure about an item, she tosses it into the bin trying to minimize waste. Unfortunately, if over 20% of the recycling load is contaminated with unacceptable materials, the entire load will likely be deemed “contaminated” when inspected at the MRF and the entire truckload will end up being rejected by the MRF and sent to a landfill or incinerator. Why? Because food contaminates the cardboard and paper when it is compacted in the truck, the plastic bag will cause the equipment to jam and put frontline workers in harms’ way, and the clamshells tend to have no buyer or secondary market.
Technology has the ability to transform the way we handle our materials. Cameras are being mounted on recycling trucks for safety purposes but also to identify contamination culprits. The data gathered from these images can be analyzed with computer vision models and alerts delivered directly to the resident to confirm whether they are recycling properly. This information can also be stored on a blockchain to not only track contamination but to confirm when Carol’s materials (or at least similar materials in that processing batch) are sold back to market and ultimately converted into new material. Delivering this clarity to Carol will boost the positive reinforcement of her efforts and encourage her to keep taking the appropriate actions. With her new knowledge, Carol can avoid plastic bags and instead head over to her local farmer’s market with her own reusable bags, while still recycling what should be recycled in her local program (aluminum cans, cardboard, paper, etc.).
1 Token for Proper Recycling, 2 for Sustainable Purchases, and 3 for Refusing to Purchase?
An example of the activity in a recycling system can be found here: How It Works: Recording Recycling Activity on the Blockchain. Tracking materials (such as cardboard and paper) without a UPC or QR code can be difficult . But, hypothetically, if you are properly recycling and not contaminating your cart, the municipality could deliver one token and then be reimbursed from companies selling recyclables in their jurisdiction. Companies such as Cryptocycle are securing recycling using blockchain. Blockchain can allow a consumer to track whether their product was processed at a MRF or was rejected and sent to disposal. Once it’s confirmed that the load has entered the MRF, then an estimate can be calculated based on the type of material that the consumer recycled and verified once the material is reprocessed or delivered to a recycling facility, validating the raw material savings. There are numerous companies utilizing blockchain in the recycling context, including KrpyC, Goodr, and RecycleGO, that utilize Hyperledger Fabric and other Hyperledger platforms to provide transparency and accountability throughout the reverse logistics networks.
Sustainable purchases could be rewarded with two tokens as they tackle the carbon footprint and plastic pollution problems stemming from human consumption at the source. Token rewards can also incent people to try reuse programs such as Loop, which decrease the carbon footprint of our materials by delivering needed products without extracting new resources. Likewise, adding a token reward model can help fuel efforts to get consumers to switch from plastic to reusable bottles for the good of their wallet, health, and the environment. Americans spent $31 billion on bottled water in one year. However, the Environmental Protection Agency found that $24 billion is needed to fix our water infrastructure, $7 billion less than we’re spending on bottled water. Tokens for making reusable bottle purchases could be exchanged for a free transit ride, park entry, or a discount at a local business.
Taking this to the next level raises an interesting question: how to verify when someone refuses to purchase a product because of its environmental impact. I mean, how can one get rewarded for “not” making a purchase? This is a difficult conundrum, and one retailers and brands would deplete their lobbying budgets to fight. However, it has the potential to distinguish the true eco-warriors from those trying to recycle our way out of it. We’ll revisit this topic later in the series.
But what about the fires, pollution, or death? Don’t worry, we’ll discuss hazardous and toxic materials in Part II of this series.
Want to be part of the effort to shape blockchain-based solutions and applications that address the greater social good? Then come get involved with the Hyperledger Social Impact Special Interest Group. All are welcome!