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The next 'big' thing: big data and the circular economy

We are all fascinated by the possibilities technology offers us. Big data is today’s buzzword, utilising information we already put out there online to influence and inform what we choose to use and buy.

Iain Gulland | 8 Dec 16

The applications of big data are huge – including banking, healthcare and retail – and this year’s Scottish Resources Conference highlighted opportunities to embrace the digital revolution to achieve zero waste.

One of the areas making most progress is in the battle to tackle food waste. The online trading platform TakeStock has been dubbed the “eBay for food”, connecting large suppliers with surplus food to bargain hunters meaning businesses can make some money selling unwanted stock rather than throwing it away.

Winnow Solutions works with restaurants and other businesses looking to cut down on food waste, by helping to identify how much food they are wasting and where they could save edible produce - and money. The cloud based platform tracks waste value and sources to help busy kitchens tackle the issue.

My own favourite is the Bosch Home Connect fridge, which takes a ‘selfie’ of the fridge contents every time you shut the door so you can access it on your smartphone. No more buying something you already have in.

But I’m sure that more such innovations are just around the corner, particularly as the circular economy gets more and more mainstream. 

Smart litter bins, for example, have already been rolled out in several cities in the UK, including in Scotland, which use solar power to compact waste and automatically notify their ‘owner’ when they are nearly full.

Now gadget designers are setting their sights on recycling, using smart bin technology to automatically separate materials and avoid contamination with the simple scan of a barcode.

Developments like this can go even further – especially when considered alongside vehicle routing technology to cut mileage without impacting on service levels.

For example:

  • The bin scans the items and can then determine what items are then in the bin.
  • This information is collated in real time and sent back to a hub, gathering similar data from thousands of such bins in the same area.
  • Information is instantly available on the amount and value of resources available. Vehicle routeing subsequently maximises resource collection and notifies householders of the impending arrival of a collection vehicle.

Such an arrangement could have even more applications when it comes to producer responsibility. With producers instantly knowing where their products or packaging are ready for collection. They could create a direct relationship with customers across the country to ensure that they are able to not only fulfil their producer obligations but also get access to a continual and high quality flow of materials.

Such instant information on resources available – and more importantly, their value – means whole communities could be incentivised to collect and provide in-demand items back to the supply chain for re-use as well as recycling. Paying the individual or community for their resource would be the obvious next step.

Each smart bin would be akin to an individual wind turbine producing value back into the resource grid – as well as providing an impetus for us all to actively engage in the circular economy.

Just as community energy and hydro schemes are transforming how communities see themselves, community resource schemes like this would empower people even further.

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