Catalysing Digital Innovation in Plastics and Waste Management: The GSMA Innovation Fund for Digital Urban Services

The world currently produces over 2 billion tonnes of solid waste every year, according to the World Bank, and by 2050 this is expected to increase to 3.4 billion tonnes. Around 12 per cent of our waste is made out of plastic – one of the world’s least-perfect recyclable materials – and much of the plastic we use today is designed to be thrown away after one use, minutes after purchase. The vast majority of the plastic waste ever produced has been buried in landfills or leaked into the environment, and less than one tenth has been recycled.

Effective waste collection systems are a critical step in improving environmental and public health, yet local governments in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are, on average, only collecting half of the waste generated in urban centres. Waste management efforts are constrained by a number of factors, including a lack of public-sector funding and inadequate infrastructure for waste identification, collection, separation, transportation, recycling, treatment and disposal.

However, the inability of the public sector to finance and deliver effective waste management can also be a catalyst for more innovative circular economy models led by the private sector. Newly published research from the GSMA has helped identify the role that digital technology can play to support plastic recycling and broader waste management practices in LMICs, and highlights examples of best practice. A few of the innovative ways we are already seeing digital technology used include:

  • Creating digital marketplaces: In Zimbabwe, mobile operator Econet has created a registered entity called Clean City Africa, which uses a mobile app to match private-sector waste collectors with sources of segregated waste (including plastic) from households and businesses. The app allows generators of waste to book collections and to make payments through their Eco-cash mobile money interface. Clean City Africa now has over 40 franchisees that cover 500,000 households in Harare and its suburbs practice, are helping more than 10,000 households practice waste-source separation, and have created over 5,000 jobs.
  • Improving traceability of plastic: Plastic for Change has adopted strategies from fair trade agriculture and applied them to the informal plastic recycling economy in India. A mobile platform provides urban waste pickers with access to fair market prices, while also allowing the buyers of recycled plastic (such as The Body Shop) to trace the source of their materials. The ethical sourcing platform enables corporate partners to measure how they are improving the social and environmental impact of their products, while also ensuring they can source a consistent supply of high-quality recycled plastic from responsible supply chains.
  • Awareness and education tools: While awareness of the environmental, economic, and public health risks associated with mismanaged waste is still low, mobile technology is particularly well placed to raise awareness of environmental issues and influence positive behaviour change through information sharing, incentives or gamification. New innovations in the sector are encouraging sustainable lifestyle for consumers by educating them on the choices they make and the impact and reward of their choices.

Insights from our research will soon be turned into action through The GSMA Innovation Fund for Digital Urban Services, which is open for applications until 2 July 2021. Through the Fund we hope to help develop, pilot or scale digital tools and business models that support the transparency, sustainability and profitability of plastic recycling or broader waste management services. We will also test how mobile operators and other technology organisations can leverage their digital platforms, services and expertise to support new recycling and waste management models.

The Fund will provide grants between £100,000 and £250,000 to start-ups, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and social enterprises in Africa, South or South East Asia that leverage digital technology to deliver urban services with socio-economic, commercial and environmental impact. In addition to Plastic and Waste Management, the Fund will also cover the Water, Energy and Sanitation sectors.

If you would like to know more about The GSMA Innovation Fund for Digital Urban Services, you can find more detail in the links below: 


Terms and conditions

Online event recordings

Supporting Innovation in Digital Urban Services (report)

The Innovation Fund Brochure

If you have any further questions, please email or if you would like to apply, click here.


The SMEP programme is funding research and related interventions aimed at reducing the environmental  and socio-economic impacts of the manufacturing sector in focus countries, as well as addressing some of the most pressing challenges associated with plastic pollution. Find out more now.

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
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