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Waste Not
The Problem with Plastic-Free July

The problems we’re facing aren’t going to be solved by forgoing plastic straws. Yes, every small action makes a difference; but these actions need to be a piece of a greater puzzle in which every council, government, company and community is building towards better waste management overall.

Every year, people around the world take part in Plastic Free July — a global movement that aims to help millions of people be part of the solution to plastic pollution. The campaign aims to create a platform for people to share ideas to minimise plastic pollution; shift toward long-term, environmentally friendly habits, and motivate people to be a part of the solution.

I fully support these objectives; and I don’t want to undermine the movement in any way. Reducing the amount of plastic being produced, used and ending up in landfills and our environments is undoubtedly a massive step in the right direction. Ocean plastic is indeed a major environmental problem — according to the World Economic Forum, we’re going to have more kilograms of plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050, if current trends continue.

But the problems we’re facing aren’t going to be solved by forgoing plastic straws. Yes, every small action makes a difference; and we should all be doing everything we can to reduce our impact and carbon footprints. But these actions need to be a piece of a greater puzzle in which every council, government, company and community is building towards better waste management overall.

Poor waste management is one of the most significant contributors to plastic waste in the ocean and other natural environments. It is everyone’s responsibility to reduce waste wherever possible and to find environmentally responsible ways of keeping waste out of the environment. But, when it comes to waste management infrastructure, the general public’s impact is limited; so, the ‘big guys’ need to step in.

We also can’t ignore the effect of other waste items and pollutants; banning plastic isn’t the panacea to the world’s waste crisis. Even the World Economic Forum has admitted that “in trying to solve the plastic pollution problem, we may have created another problem: We are replacing plastic with materials that have a carbon footprint up to three times higher than plastics themselves, some of which are not even biodegradable in real-life conditions.” Life cycle assessments have shown that the single-use plastic straw has nearly half the energy demand of polylactic acid (PLA) and paper straws.

But it’s not all doom and pollution

Waste avoidance and better waste management are now high on the agenda for many councils and municipalities around the world; and modern technology is enabling smart waste-management solutions that reduce costs, meet community expectations and contribute to protecting the environment.

However, by and large, most of the world’s waste-collection systems are still using outdated, inefficient methods — resulting in pick-ups that are either long overdue, unnecessary or not taking place at all. In addition, poorly planned routes create further inefficiencies and increased carbon footprints. So, what’s the solution?

Internet of Things (IoT) technology can solve these and many other issues by creating more efficient waste-management processes. For example, an IoT sensor can indicate to waste-management teams when a bin actually needs to be emptied. But in this article, we’re talking specifically about what smarter waste management can do to prevent plastics and other waste products from ending up where they shouldn’t be:

  • Smart waste management means that waste is properly sorted, handled and turned into recyclable assets. And with more and more plastic products designed to be recyclable, failing to do so is a massive missed opportunity.

  • Using real-time data to prevent overflowing bins reduces environmental pollution.

  • Various smart processes can be integrated into an overall building management system, which allows for further automated control, analytics and reporting. By analysing waste-disposal patterns, managers will be able to identify the ‘common culprits’ that are generating high volumes of waste. The data can also be used to set targets for waste reduction.

  • By demonstrating greater transparency, cities, companies and buildings will be able to demonstrate their ESG commitments and waste-management improvements, ideally gaining buy-in (and budgets) for further waste-reduction efforts.

Plastic is one of man’s greatest inventions. But all the benefits of this material are jeopardised if plastic waste pollutes our environment. The real issues at hand are human behaviour and ineffective waste management and recycling systems. If these issues aren’t fixed, all our other efforts will have less impact. You can have a 100 percent recyclable product — but if it’s not properly separated and moved to the right place, it lies to waste in a landfill or somewhere where it shouldn’t be.

I work for a technology company. So, for me, using smart waste-management solutions — where accessible and feasible — makes the most sense. But, I’m still not going to use plastic straws.

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