Blockchain: the future of WEEE recycling?

Stewart McGrenary, founder and managing director of electronics recycling company Plunc, discusses the potential for blockchain to revolutionise how we deal with e-waste.

Stewart McGrenaryBlockchain technology is mainly attributed to cryptocurrency. However, the decentralisation it provides could also apply to the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

A blockchain contains multiple pieces of information. For instance, the blockchain for Bitcoin contains details for every single transaction. This is almost impossible to edit. Each block in a blockchain for e-waste might contain the following information:

  • Which item was picked up for recycling;
  • Which recycling centre it is set to be delivered to; and
  • Where the item was picked up.

Like DNA, each block contains a unique hash code. Each block is also verified by a network of computers. With regard to e-waste, that would be every single stakeholder, including governmental organisations and recycling groups. This verification process makes it very difficult to edit a block, because it is protected by collective security. Once a block is verified, it gets added to the blockchain. Think of it as the pearls which make up a necklace; each pearl is a different block.

The power of blockchain for e-waste is that it adds much-needed transparency. At present, data on WEEE recycling is inaccurate, and some companies cheat by illegally dumping their goods. However, we could implement blockchain to boost WEEE recycling by assigning a block to every single item picked up for recycling. The blockchain is publicly available, so if a piece of e-waste doesn’t make it to the recycling centre, for instance, we would be able to see this through the blockchain.

We can track whether it made it to the recycling centre or got dumped elsewhere. This traceability means that it is easy to see the ‘bad players’. The data is incorruptible; therefore, it encourages businesses and organisations to follow the rules. This level of accountability will increase the efficiency of e-waste recycling. Instead of making wild guesses, stakeholders will be able to make data-backed improvements.

Most companies do an excellent job of recycling products; however, there isn’t industry-wide traceability and accountability. As a result, it can be difficult to measure progress. It is challenging to improve on what we can’t accurately measure.

To rectify this issue, there needs to be decentralised tracking of how much e-waste is collected, by who, where it goes and what it is used for. This needs to be decentralised so that organisations aren’t able to ‘edit’ their numbers in order to meet targets. Transparency also ensures that the process is less easily exploited by middlemen. Plus, it creates opportunities for entrepreneurs to step in and offer data-backed solutions. For example, if the e-waste collection in one city is much lower in June, why is that? Could it be that specialised trucks are less available in that month?

In recent times, the UK has failed to meet its e-waste recycling targets. Politics aside, this is an institutional issue. Arguably, the UK isn’t under much pressure to improve its e-waste recycling efforts. We send thousands of tonnes of e-waste to developing countries. Some of it can be modified and used by the local population, but a lot of it ends up in a landfill, leading to air and water pollution. However, it becomes ‘their’ problem. This is a short-sighted approach, especially as some developing nations are starting to refuse or reduce e-waste imports.

With all this in mind, there is now an opportunity to stimulate the economy by using blockchain technology to create an industry-wide standard for the recycling of e-waste.

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