Using data to make the world more circular

The worth of the global plastics market is estimated at £1.2bn but, from the moment it leaves the shelf, single-use plastic is perceived as retaining no value. The only way it can recoup value is through reuse or recycling. However, despite public outcries, government and corporate commitments towards reducing plastic waste, the economy is in fact becoming less circular, and as such, recycling plastics is getting harder. 

In early 2019, the EU exported around 150,000 tonnes of plastic waste per month. That is down by nearly half from the 300,000 tonnes recorded monthly in 2015 and 2016. This sharp drop is due in part to import restrictions that have been informed by a lack of data around the types of plastics being exported. Plastic recycling is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mould.

In the UK alone there are 39 different rule sets for the materials that can be recycled. These vary from county to county. However, there is currently no single source of data that can help consumers, manufacturers, sellers and waste management firms make more sustainable choices on the types of plastics that are being produced, purchased and recycled.

In the UK alone, there are 39 different rule sets for the materials that can be recycled

The role of data in combatting the plastics problem 

Most companies consider data an owned asset. Data contains valuable insights that can help a business connect better with its customers and inform efficiencies. But data only contains value when it can be analysed and acted upon. For example, it’s valuable for a grocer to understand what items and brands a customer prefers. However, within that purchase, there is also data about the type and weight of plastic being purchased. That data could be shared to serve a higher purpose.

Healthcare gives us one clear example of how this works. The World Health Organisation routinely uses data retrieved from government reports, social media, news sites and other sources to help officials more accurately predict how far and how fast outbreaks will spread, what type of people are most likely to be affected and where medicine needs to be distributed.

On a local scale, when it comes to recycling single-use plastics, there are three main players: the manufacturers, the retailers and the waste management companies. By sharing data on the materials, weight and size of the plastics being produced, sold and recycled, organisations will be better informed and can work together to develop and sell plastics that can be recycled by local waste management companies. 

On a global scale large amounts of plastic waste have an enormous economic value. By granting access to data we can ensure that plastic waste has value to the export country, and that its transport meets fast changing regulations.  

Collaboration to clean up our environment 

The lack of information around plastics recycling is not something companies can ignore. According to a recent global survey by SAP and Qualtrics of more than 10,500 people across 30 countries, people saw a lack of recycling programmes and not knowing how to participate in programmes as the biggest barriers to recycling. Those same respondents were widely enthusiastic about taxing polluters and most respondents believed their country was doing too little to protect the environment. Governments are beginning to respond to public pressure and they will place the burden of change on manufacturers and retailers. By working together across the plastic supply chain, companies can begin to address these challenges head on. Shared data holds the key and data companies have a big role to play.  

The UK plastics pact is an inspiring collaborative initiative that will create a circular economy for plastics

Fortunately, there are powerful allies in this cause. SAP recently joined the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partner community, a key partner in the aim to create a cleaner ocean by 2030.  As part of the programme we have updated our Plastics Cloud which helps companies produce products more responsibly by providing global insights to enable better understanding about what materials are used and their fates. 

The new Plastics Cloud offering also links to a secondary materials marketplace based on Ariba Network, which connects packaging and consumer products companies globally to new sources of recycled plastics and plastic alternatives. This will complement initiatives such as the UK digital waste map announced last year by waste-insights company Topolytics Limited.

In addition, businesses can collaborate with organisations like WRAP – which works between governments, businesses and communities – to create impactful partnerships and deliver on sustainable initiatives that support a circular economy. The UK Plastics Pact is an inspiring collaborative initiative that will create a circular economy

for plastics. It brings together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with UK government and NGOs to tackle the curse of plastic waste.

Partnerships and collaboration between stakeholders will be significant to facilitating the reduction and reuse of questionable resources, while providing alternate suggestions. But, central to that will be the exchange of information. Not only do businesses need to plug into the data matrix for reuse insights but they must also factor these kinds of initiatives into their business models to support circular objectives. 

I think many would agree that as individuals we are all doing too little to help save our environment. Businesses are often even more guilty of this truth. Yet, unlike people, businesses hold the key to improving the production and processes that can help turn things around within their infrastructures. Initially held up as the intrusive and scary bogeyman of digitisation, data has become the golden nugget of hope that can empower businesses in the march towards a more sustainable economy.