Have you ever wondered why there are such significant gaps of information in a product's lifecycle? Every person and institution in today's world relies on trusted information. Our personal choices, business decisions, and public policy are all based on the information available to us. Which is why the information platform that waste management depends on needs to be consciously designed for transparency. End-of-life has traditionally been the toughest phase to acquire data on. This has been the case for larger plastic items, but it is even more difficult for small-format plastics. Individually, products such as cup lids, straws, bottle caps, and tear-off condiment containers have rarely been tracked or accounted for. However, with current technologies available locally in many regions, small and large format plastics could be accounted for. The specific technologies are blockchain ledgers, smart contracts, sensors, and passive RFID tags. Microsoft and Mojix already have announced a blockchain project for supply chain management. The blockchain being proposed here would be developed with the principal intent of product life cycle analysis and waste diversion.
Blockchain & Plastics Accounting
For decades, when plastics were produced and entered the market, there was a loss of information and ability to track what happens with them. On a more granular level, small-format plastics are even harder to track. As stated above, blockchain technology seems to have a strong potential for application to supply chains, and by extension, product life cycles. In simple terms, blockchain is a distributed database with an ongoing list of digital records called “blocks” that can’t be modified or revised once recorded. It is important to note that the recording itself is an automated process as well. Much of what blockchain provides is privacy, fraud prevention, interoperability in data formats, record access management, and anonymity. Most importantly, blockchain provides transactional-level big data that allows for granular analysis of plastic flows, which is currently unavailable. This can be achieved with smart profiling, or in this context, a Plastic ID.
At the intersection of blockchain and plastics is a series of information transactions. Together, these form a unique Plastic ID. All that would be required for such an ID is the use of a UPC barcode or passive RFID technology. Each time the plastic moves into the next phase of its lifecycle, it will change owners until reclamation by public or private waste management providers. Each one of these transactions is publicly recorded, allowing communities and analysts to look into where plastic is currently concentrated. These transactions can be made in an effortless manner thanks to smart contracts. The assignment of an ID could be for a bulk order or for each unit. Plastic ID integrated with the total life cycle would provide behavioral analytics of users and organizations through which plastics flow.
Sensors & Reclamation Points
In public areas and at points of consumption, low-cost sensor-enhanced bins could scan for the Plastic IDs or the type of plastic reclaimed from a user. Once reclaimed, the plastic can then cycle back to the ownership of the producer, who could be identified thanks to the blockchain platform and the Plastic IDs within it. This could build on top of other reclamation ideas proposed.
Incentivization will require engagement from the government with both the private sector and the community. The most important actor here is the government, who will be the main driver of incentivizing businesses and communities for such a system. Government’s principle driver is the preservation of community and public capital. Often, governments are restrained financially, which presents an opportunity for multi-partisan support on certain issues. For the Plastics Accountability Information Platform, the incentive for the government should be cost reductions for landfill maintenance and open data for new public-private partnerships. By emphasizing savings on a local, state, or federal level, it allows for more discretionary spending for government agencies overall.
For businesses, the incentives come in many forms, including brand resonance, reduced costs of plastic-based items, or new revenue streams. An example would be a small bakery that has worked out an arrangement with the plastics producer to collect in-store small-format plastics in specified bins with payouts based on the volume reclaimed. The blockchain allows for clear insight for both primary parties and third parties such as government, waste authorities, and communities.
We chose to address Puerto Rico as our region for several reasons. First and foremost, our company, Isla Innovations, has roots in Puerto Rico. As an island, we have limited resources, and the environmental impact of our linear economy is more apparent and its implications are more imminent than in the Continental United States, where more space is available for waste, and raw materials and products can be trucked in (and waste trucked out) overnight. According to the EPA (Solid Waste in Puerto Rico, 2010), “Puerto Rico residents generate more waste than people living on the mainland, and recycling rates in the Commonwealth are lower. Much of Puerto Rico's solid waste ends up in one of island's 32 landfills, most of which do not comply with Commonwealth and federal landfill requirements.” Puerto Rico relies solely on municipality-controlled landfills for waste disposal, and with over 4 million tons of solid waste generated per year, waste has a significant impact on our economy, our environment, and our lives. In fact, in by 2020, it is expected that there will only be 4 landfills in operation (compared to 32 in 2010). In addition, low landfill tipping fees encourage irresponsible recycling and waste disposal habits, and the lack of appropriate funding streams for waste management infrastructure add to our long-term concerns. With a recycling rate of only 10% (in 2007), our waste management system is dire. (Autoridad de Desperdicious Solidos, Solid Waste Management in Puerto Rico: Realities, Facts, and Figures, Feb. 2010).
With such a low participation rate in recycling, the design of products and services must be inherently sustainable until policy and system solutions can be developed to nudge people to adopt more sustainable habits. This is already happening in Cabo Rojo, where the Orange Initiative (Iniciativa Naranja) has been implemented to financially incentivize recycling.
While the policies are developed across the island for better recycling habits, people also need information dashboards that show progress towards zero-waste. It is for these reasons that developing more information platforms, such as this Blockchain Lifecycle Information Platform, will help contribute to Puerto Rico's adoption of circular economy principles.