Submitted by Katie McBeth
In the realm of business, “green” efforts are constantly molding and changing. As our understanding of global climate change shifts, so does our techniques to combat it.
After last year’s announcement from the United Nations that revealed their 15 year plan for Sustainable Development Goals, many businesses took the announcement to heart. The focus was shifting, this time to reducing waste and working on a more global level to make a dedicated effort to improve practices. Instead of looking at the impact of one, it invited business owners, cities, and nations to look at the impact of many. How can organizations on an entire street; in a city; or in a state make a global difference?
In the European Union, the Circular Economy was suggested as a solution to waste management in response to the new UN goals. The goal of the new economy was to recycle or repurpose 65% of the collected waste in the EU by 2018. Although this circular model hasn’t made its way across the globe, many businesses are thinking of ways to advance their waste management and apply their own circular model to business waste.
The goal is to “close the loop” from production, to use, to disposal, and secondary repurposing. Companies that produce waste are incentivized, through this model, to make adjustments in their products so they can be reused efficiently. However, pitfalls have arisen in the model; primarily in relation to bureaucratic holes and lack of encompassing infrastructure that could help track the waste from start to reuse.
Alexander Aylett, an assistant professor with UCS-INRS in Quebec, notes this on his blog discussing modern urban technology:
“In a nutshell, an increasingly complex and holistic technical understanding of urban emissions is being matched by an increasing horizontal and networked approach to governing those emissions. [...] But plans and programs based on this understanding quickly run into the significant barriers of institutional siloization and path dependency, a lack of effective information sharing, challenges of data collection and analysis, and difficulty mobilizing collective and collaborative action across multiple diverse and dispersed actors.”
How can cities track the waste of all their citizens and businesses within their district? How can municipalities and countries track the intake, use, and reuse of products or emissions? Most importantly: how can the loop be guaranteed to work?
Luckily, the answer is simple: the Internet of Things (IOT).
IOT is the interconnectedness of devices and the storing, analyzing, and processing of that information. For example, Amazon’s Echo is connected to the bigger Amazon IOT network and the devices that are paired with it. Similarly, large cities - such as Johannesburg, South Africa - utilize IOT technology to track energy use, air pollutants, and emissions. Through IOT, many of the concerns surrounding circular economies can be answered.
In the United States, many of the concerns surrounding this new infrastructure revolve around job loss from non-green careers, proper emission tracking, and nation-wide monitoring.
Yet, IOT can provide solutions to all of those problems. This budding and successful tech industry could provide jobs within the private and government sector, and could provide the link needed to monitor items from start to disposal and reuse.
Our failing and aging water system is one such infrastructure that could utilize IOT to close the loop. The myriad of outdated and broken pipes across America can be replaced with new pipes that can monitor for leaks through changing pressure, constantly analyze for harmful chemicals, calculate usage on an individual or business-wide basis, and can track the lifetime of the pipes; letting professionals know when it is time to update them. IOT can guarantee that water is recycled from the source, to the consumer, to the wastewater plant and back.
Other solutions are available through modern day IOT networks. Entire cities can be run on IOT; to track everything from traffic, public safety, to waste management and air pollutants. The boundless possibilities may seem idealistic, but many experts have been diving into the potential for IOT to solve many of the world’s modern ills.
TechCrunch author, Sebastian Egerton-Read, notes the potential for IOT in “closing the loop” in his April 2016 article:
“Developing individual business models is one thing, but the recent report, Intelligent Assets: Unlocking the Circular Economy Potential, goes a step further by looking at the opportunities for the larger system. A vision for the built environment where a digital library of materials is sourced from connected buildings, which also provide information that allows predictive maintenance and effective sharing and utilization of space and energy consumption, is sketched out in the report. The multiplier impact, in terms of benefit, of resolving a number of challenges with a single systemic solution is assumed to be significant.”
If IOT offers the solution, how can businesses capitalize on this promise? Unfortunately, that is the current challenge to completing the loop for businesses. Without the encompassing technology already in place, there’s no way of knowing if a circular model is truly completing the loop. Businesses can, however, focus their interests in investing and furthering IOT research and technology, and pushing their local governments to do the same.
IOT may answer many of the problems associated with recycling in the modern age, but until the gaps are filled we may be stuck in our continual struggle with human waste. Luckily, tech companies are willing and able to face the challenge once government markets are willing to accept their help.