Digital Dividends in Plastic Recycling

Plastic is an integral and valuable part of the global economy, and is used in thousands of products that add comfort, convenience and safety to our everyday lives. It supports innovation in medicine, lightens cars and airplanes (saving fuel and, therefore, emissions), extends the life of fresh food and delivers clean drinking water to billions of people living in poverty. In many ways, plastic makes modern life possible, but nearly half of what is produced today is designed to be disposed after just one use, within minutes of purchase.

The negative impacts of the plastic life cycle on our climate, the natural environment and the well-being of the world’s poorest communities are well known – yet plastic production is still on the rise, and globally less than 10 per cent of plastic waste is recycled (see chart below). Unless substantial changes are made to how this material is used and reused, it is expected that over the next two to three decades, the amount of plastic produced every year will double, the amount of plastic flowing into oceans will triple and the plastics industry will account for 20 per cent of global oil consumption.

However, pathways to a more sustainable and circular future are still within reach. In many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), circular economy solutions are nascent, but promising. These solutions are based on traditions of separating waste at source, improved resource consciousness, and the emergence of innovative, small-scale plastic recycling initiatives. There is also growing evidence that digital technologies, such as satellite and drone imagery, AI and IoT – combined with the expansion of mobile coverage, smartphone penetration and mobile money adoption – can help address a range of challenges and inefficiencies faced by those responsible for locating, collecting, segregating, transporting and recycling plastic waste.

In our new report, we explore the specific benefits that plastics organisations (for-profit start-ups or social enterprises that manage plastic waste collection and recycling) in LMICs currently reap, or could eventually reap, from using digital tools or services or partnering with technology organisations, such as mobile network operators (MNOs). Through desk research and stakeholder interviews, we have captured and documented global trends and examples of best practice, and identified key value drivers that, alongside the use of digital tools, often enable plastics organisations to achieve scale and sustainability. The report also maps potential synergies between plastics and technology organisations that could lead to opportunities for future collaboration.

Our research has found that digital solutions can improve citizen engagement in recycling activities, drive operational efficiencies, and enable plastics organisations to trace the provenance, quality and flow of plastic through the value chain (a critical requirement of the growing ‘socially responsible plastic’ sector).

It is also clear from the many of the case studies in this report – such as those featuring Mr. Green Africa (Kenya), Banyan Nation (India) and Econet’s Clean City Africa (Zimbabwe) – that digital technology can help scale plastic recycling efforts in ways that support livelihoods and digital inclusion, and create value for all actors in the plastics supply chain.

We also found that plastics organisations could provide MNOs with an opportunity to grow their core revenue, develop new digital business models (e.g. around AI and IoT services), increase customer satisfaction and brand loyalty and source recycled plastic for new products. At the same time, MNOs could help plastics organisations in LMICs achieve greater impact, sustainability and scale by leveraging their digital platforms, services and expertise, as well as raising awareness among consumers.

Organisations from every stakeholder group interviewed through our study described challenges they face identifying opportunities for cross-sector collaborations that address funding, skills and technology gaps. With this in mind, we have developed a handful of recommendations for MNOs, plastic organisations, governments and donors, which focus on actions that can be taken to explore new partnership models, share best practice, replicate success, and ultimately achieve greater scale and sustainability. The GSMA’s ClimateTech programme is committed to furthering these efforts and is actively working to help our members and development partners identify opportunities for innovation. Through this work we aim to foster new cross-sector collaborations, generate insights on the size of the commercial opportunity for MNOs and other technology organisations, and help document and replicate best-practice models.

If you or your organisation would like to join us in this effort, please get in touch.

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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