This four-part series is aimed at using the open source and collaborative nature of blockchain to tackle issues plaguing human consumption and improve society for future generations. We hope that this series can invoke quick movement on use cases with high potential to improve social good.
In Part I we looked at how governments can create markets to solve recycling contamination and reward citizens via blockchain. This engages consumers, reduces confusion and boosts recycling participation. Part II (below) focuses on using blockchain to track hazardous and toxic materials from the point of purchase to ensure proper material handling to prevent fires, death, and pollution. Part III looks at government tax credits to expedite the adoption of recycling and composting programs by communities and businesses, while using blockchain to verify compliance, traceability, and program participation. Lastly, in Part IV we will discuss Zero Waste initiatives that cities, businesses, and facilities can implement to reduce the carbon and pollutant impact of their supply chains.
Part II Tracking Hazardous and Toxic Materials
Pollution, Chemicals, and Fires
Pollution is the presence of some materials in the environment and the state of the natural environment being contaminated with potentially harmful substances as an outcome of human activities. Annually, there are over 4.2 million deaths due to outdoor air pollution. Water pollution caused 1.8 million deaths in 2015. As of September 2021, nearly 300 million tons of hazardous waste has been thrown out globally since the beginning of this year alone! Human consumption can cause substantial harm to our health leading to chronic diseases, environmental harms, and death. In addition, studies show that toxic chemicals are invading our bodies and breast-feeding women are passing these toxic chemicals on to their babies. These chemicals can cause cancer and reproductive issues, damage DNA, and disrupt hormone systems of animals and people, among a myriad of other risks.
Indeed, human consumption directly impacts our air, water, and soil throughout the entire product supply chain. From the extraction of raw materials to the manufacturing processes, transportation, distribution, storage, consumption, and ultimate disposal of materials in landfills and incinerators, each step of the chain releases carbon, chemicals, and other pollutants into groundwater, toxify the earth’s soil, and pollutes our air. However, for this specific blog, we are focusing on the end of the supply chain, looking at how we can keep potentially hazardous and toxic materials in circulation while minimizing impact by enforcing the proper disposal of these materials.
On the bright side, controlling pollution and human consumption has a great return on investment. According to the Lancet Commission on Health, the global economic costs of pollution are massive, totaling “$4.6 trillion per year—6.2% of global economic output.” In the United States, air pollution control pays off at a rate of 30-1. Every dollar invested in air pollution control generates thirty dollars of benefits. Since 1970, the United States has invested around $65 billion in air pollution control and received around $1.5 trillion in benefits. Indeed, hazardous materials have the potential to desperately impact vulnerable communities, but the efforts to control them also provide an opportunity to create jobs, improve health, and create economic opportunity.
Do you know where to recycle/properly dispose of your electronics, chemicals, and other hazardous materials? Do you know if your trash or recycling was the cause of a fire? Improper disposal of dangerous material can lead to fires that occur in collection trucks, trash cans and dumpsters, or a recycling, landfill, or incineration facility. For example, lithium ion batteries in electronics can cause fires that ignite nearby materials creating an uncontrollable blaze. These fires often require the fire station to put them out and result in additional chemicals such as Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) to be released into the environment. This further pollutes our air, water, and soil. Even when people know about the dangers, processes to motivate consumers and inspire behavior change are lacking. Further, because of the vast amount of materials in our supply chains, it is complicated to know what to dispose of where, and what can be potentially dangerous to frontline workers and vulnerable communities.
The scenario below provides greater detail using an example from our household electronics.
Scenario #2 Harry’s Hazardous Mishap
Let’s assume Harry just broke his new electronic device that contains a lithium-ion battery. Instead of taking it to a local electronics retailer, the local hazardous recycling center, or having it collected, he tosses the device into his trash can. On garbage day, the garbage collector (Wanda Worker) arrives, uses the claw to collect Harry’s trash and is off to the next home. It is a hot day. About thirty minutes later, Wanda is almost done with her route and begins to head back to dump her truckload. She looks in her sideview mirrors and begins to see smoke billowing out of her truck. She radios into dispatch that she might have a problem. Quickly the smoke starts to increase, and Wanda is forced to dump her truckload for her own safety, to protect the vehicle, and even prevent an explosion from occurring. Dispatch calls emergency services, and a firetruck and ambulance arrive shortly to put out the fire and check on Wanda.
A scenario like this happened as recently as May of this year in Manassas, Virginia. Find a news link here. Find the tweet here. The article also reports that there was a fire at the Material Recovery Facility as well earlier in the week. Two fires in one week! On July 7, 2021, a Waste Management vehicle caught fire in Oregon. This electronics recycling problem is not siloed to the United States; here is a video from a fire in Australia:
The statistics are not crystal clear on how many fires occur due to people improperly disposing of materials, but it has been reported that there are over 8,000 landfill fires occur annually. Humans have more and more devices in our home, and we must take special precautions when handling them at the end of life. Fires caused by batteries, devices and related materials are just one example. There are other chemical instances, such as paints, heavy metals and other substances that might not spark a fire, but are toxic when disposed of and can ultimately enter our groundwater supply. For example, when it rains on landfills, the rain can flush these chemicals into our water supply as leachate.
When businesses dump hazardous waste, there are often repercussions. For instance, Home Depot was fined $27.84 million in California for improperly disposing of hazardous waste. However, consumer enforcement is much more difficult, costly, and essentially non-existent as it requires a manual inspection of thousands of trash and recycling containers. In addition, there are privacy concerns surrounding people inspecting trash and recycling. In some cases, it could be ruled an invasion of privacy, whereas in other areas private receptacles are subject to inspection.
So where does blockchain come into play? Blockchain creates new models for ensuring that these hazardous items never end up in the wrong place and that those creating dangerous and unsafe workplaces for frontline workers, toxifying our water supply and contributing to air and soil pollution are held accountable. Dangerous and hazardous materials can be tracked from the point of purchase and verified once the person disposes of them in the proper location. This material list could range from electronics to chemicals and any other poisonous or toxic material. A discount or other brand powered incentive could encourage people to properly handle and dispose of these types of materials. Essentially, it would amount to a brand-powered “bottle” bill for hazardous and dangerous materials, which result in fires, groundwater contamination and air pollution, especially in vulnerable communities.
Chem Chain is a company that focuses on tracking the chemicals contained in products to educate consumers on the risks that exist throughout the supply chain and looks at the impact of the products we use on a daily basis. Deloitte also provided some guidance on how blockchain can be used to tackle these issues in the chemical industry supply chain.
The IBM Food Trust certification program could also be a model for tracking hazardous waste. It even provides a roadmap for monitoring and measuring the overall impact of individual consumers disposing of materials properly and the economic savings from reduced fires, pollution, and safety issues that are created by toxic and hazardous materials.
By requiring certificates on a blockchain chain powered by the state or federal government, municipalities and other entities could issue licenses for these types of household electronics from the point of purchase. The license would mandate that they can’t be disposed of in the trash or recycling. Instead, they must be dropped off at a collection site, to ensure that the materials are properly handled. Indeed, this could create a market for licensed material collectors to handle materials on an ad-hoc personalized basis from consumers homes and create more public awareness around this ever present issue..
Programs like this can encourage individuals to purchase more sustainable and circular products. But, in the case where these metals and lithium-ion batteries cannot be avoided, at least we can ensure Wanda Worker gets home to her family safely as the public becomes motivated to get educated and do the right thing.
The purpose of these blogs is to stir ideas and innovation in the circular economy to better understand the current interactions of material life cycles. The Hyperledger Social Impact Group hopes that these blogs can create interest for:
· Focusing on clean air, water, soil, by increasing material collection efficiently and eliminating waste.
· Calculating product lifecycles for consumers and business materials.
· Analyzing political, economic, social, and practical blockchain applications.
· Building proof-of-concept applications to demo for stakeholders.
If you want to be part of the discussion or, even better, help build solutions that reduce the impact of hazardous materials disposal, please check out the Hyperledger Social Impact SIG new member center. Or subscribe to the Social Impact SIG mailing list for updates and meeting notifications.