Making Circularity Work: How digital innovation enables circular economy approaches in waste management

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The last few decades have seen circularity principles move from the fringes to take centre stage in global and national policy making. While the concepts are increasingly established, global recycling and reuse rates for materials are testament to the fact that we are only at the very beginning of operationalising these principles.

Presently, the growth in waste is outstripping population growth by a factor of two globally, and a factor of three for e-waste. The proportion of materials in the global economy cycled back into use fell between 2018 and 2023, from 9.1% to 7.3%, fewer than 10% of the world’s plastics are currently recycled, and global e-waste recycling rates stand at 22%. Across low-and middle-income countries, only half of municipal waste is collected in the first instance.

This report takes stock of how and where digital innovation supports circular economy models in waste management. It presents insights from the recently completed GSMA Innovation Fund for Digital Urban Services, which included organisations working on digitalising waste management. These are supplemented with insights from across the ecosystem, with a focus on the start-ups and early-stage companies working in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

There are causes for optimism in the face of the mounting waste challenge. There is growing momentum behind national and global policy change governing waste. In many cases, these changes are market-making for those working towards circular economy approaches. Demand for secondary materials in manufacturing is also rising, particularly those from e-waste in response to the limited global supply of critical inputs. That the waste sector is such a significant source of emissions presents the opportunity for mitigation, and for access to climate finance. Lastly, start-ups working in the waste sector are increasingly being viewed favourably by investors, with series raises in the tens of millions being increasingly common.

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