In 2016 during the SXSW Eco in Austin, Texas, Kate Brandt, the chief sustainability officer at Google, was a keynote speaker. Kate's talk focused on how Google creates sustainable practices, covering everything from where the internet lives at the data center level. But, for me, the most exciting part was when Kate shared how Google reduces waste from their cafes through data and analytics. This use case highlighted that waste management is a data problem.
Fast forward to 2022, the waste management industry remains dataless, even though this is one of the biggest industries in the world, with a global market size value of USD 394.1 billion in 2020. The challenge of lack of data, or shall I say, lack of reliable data in the waste management industry, continues to restrict exponential progress and growth that will increase our recycling rate and unlock massive economic opportunities, especially in developing countries. Through my own experiences, I have realized that there is more than enough funds to build both physical and digital infrastructure that will provide reliable waste data, yet, there seem to be other issues interfering with progress.
Recently, I had a meeting with one of the biggest municipalities in Johannesburg, which shall remain confidential for obvious reasons. However, during the session, I asked the municipality the following question, "since you are spending millions of rands annually to support waste diversion from landfills and promote waste minimization, do you have a clear understanding of how much waste the city produces, where the waste goes, and if it gets recycled?". The municipality answer; all the formally registered recycling and waste management companies we support in the city provide data on the waste they recycle.
At first glance, this sounds convincing; yet, this answer overlooks that registered recycling and waste management companies make up a small percentage of the market. In fact, most waste material sits with the informal actors in developing countries like South Africa. These informal actors operate in small to mid-sized operations in townships, remote towns, and rural areas. Unfortunately, these essential parties continue to suffer as opportunities for many projects, budgets, and resources circumvent them.
To gain reliable data on waste activities, volumes, and other paramount data insights, we must include informal waste stakeholders (waste pickers, buyback centers, NGOs, and any other party) in our projects, budgets, and resources. Although, we should not be flooding these informal actors with formal processes and systems that will lead to failure. It is essential to always keep in mind that these informal actors should direct us on how best to introduce economic, financial, health, and safety inclusion projects. So let us go in their environment as learners instead of educators, let us listen more than we talk, and start building an ecosystem of waste actors that will give us reliable data on waste materials.