Tom Giddings, general manager of the Aluminium packaging recycling organisation (Alupro), discusses the UK government’s current consultation regarding the implementation of a centralised digital waste tracking system, explaining the immediate opportunities and possible challenges of transitioning away from a paper-based approach.

In January, ministers opened a national consultation regarding the introduction of a digital waste tracking service. With the aim of developing a centralised solution for those who produce, handle, dispose of or reprocess waste products, the service could redefine the way waste is tracked, traced, recorded and policed.

Replacing the dated and unreliable systems of today, embracing a fresh approach would effectively create a live database – a significant step forward in capability and value that would deliver measurable benefit for the entire industry.

Tom Giddings, Alupro, General Manager

Adopting a digital approach

While more than 200 million tonnes of waste are generated in the UK every year, there is currently no centralised solution to effectively track it. Currently, we rely on a plethora of systems to capture various data elements – some paper-based, others digital, some mandatory, others discretionary, some run by private contracts and others by the government. As a result, data is disparate, inconsistent, dated and often unreliable. 

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As a result, it’s challenging to effectively track and trace waste material. This not only makes planning and analysis a hugely complex task, but also, in some cases, makes it harder to detect, monitor or prevent illegal waste crime (such as fly tipping, deliberate misclassification of waste, illegal waste exports and the operation of illegal waste sites).

Combining these systems into a uniform digital solution would therefore make it more straightforward for the supply chain to comply with reporting requirements, as well as for stakeholders to access data, and harder for waste crime to go unnoticed.

Modernisation is key, especially considering our national ambition of becoming a world-leader in best practice waste management. Digitalising the process would offer numerous advantages, including providing real-time insight into waste location and the ability to track material from source to destination. What’s more, it would offer better insight into stress points or, indeed, excess capacity.

If delivered correctly, we could achieve total transparency, resulting in increased public confidence in recyclate destination and more accurate insight to guide greater investment into future infrastructure. What’s more, it would help the sector to deliver against future policy requirements. Take reforms to extended producer responsibility (EPR) as an example, which will put local authorities under increasing pressure to demonstrate packaging recycling data specific to their due restriction. A digital system would help to make this process both simple and achievable. 

At Alupro, we therefore support the idea of a digital waste tracking service. In fact, we’ve been voicing our concerns for some time about the pivotal importance of improving data quality within the industry.

This said, it’s important to consider the knock-on effect of change – not just for the major players, but for the thousands of smaller businesses set to be impacted, both from an operational and financial perspective.

Positive progress, or unsupported expense?

For large producers and the sector’s most renowned companies, digitalisation of data is unlikely to make waves. A centralised database would make reporting easier, faster, safer and less resource-intensive. Necessary operational changes would be minimal, while investment would be negligible when offset against time investment costs – a win-win situation.

However, for players at the opposite end of the market – the scrap metal merchants and other small businesses, the impact could be far more challenging. Indeed, moving from a mostly paper-based system to a digital approach could require significant investment into technology and training.

But who will pay for this resulting cost? Another burden on the smaller players, or subsidised elsewhere? Supported by the government, or simply a ‘pay to play’ approach? It’s imperative that the system is just and fair – not just from a continuity perspective, but from an operational cost and investment perspective too. Otherwise, we run the risk of isolating small businesses and putting unnecessary pressure on those who can’t afford to pivot.

After all, while the idea of digitalisation is a robust and necessary one, it’s important that we acknowledge that change comes at a cost. If we get this right, the introduction of a single, digital, centralised waste database could prove invaluable – leading to increased consumer confidence, more investment, the creation of more jobs and positive traction towards creating a circular economy.