Government invests £1 million in smart waste tracking to tackle waste crime

Anthesis Vastum team
Anthesis team, left to right: Jamie Warmington (Senior Consultant), Simone Aplin (Technical Director), Craig Simmons (Chief Technology Officer) and Stephen Ellis (Senior Developer)
The government is awarding £1 million of funding to technology companies to help fund smart waste tracking systems and tackle UK waste crime.

As part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) £20-million GovTech Catalyst fund, which supports the development of innovative solutions for public sector challenges, grants of £500,000 each will be going to digital specialists Anthesis and waste analytics company Topolytics in order to develop more effective waste tracking systems.

Illegal waste activity costs the UK economy around £600 million every year. Fly-tipping is a particularly big issue, causing local authorities and councils to spend £57.7 million to clear illegally dumped waste in 2016/17.

Organised criminals mislabelling waste to avoid landfill tax or illegally export it is a further scourge, with an independent review ordered by former Environment Secretary Michael Gove in 2018 recommending mandatory electronic tracking of waste to combat such behaviour. This measure was included in the Resources and Waste Strategy – along with the creation of a Joint Unit for Waste Crime and increasing powers available to the Environment Agency (EA) – and has now been included in the Environment Bill.

Large businesses not been immune to accusations of mishandling waste, with waste management company Biffa ordered to pay £599,812 for breaching waste export regulations after being found guilty of attempting to send heavily contaminated waste labelled as ‘mixed paper’ to China in 2015.

In being awarded the GovTech Catalyst grants, Anthesis and Topolytics have been tasked by the government with building prototypes of the UK’s first comprehensive digital waste tracking system, which would replace what Defra calls ‘outdated’ paper-based tracking systems.

Commenting on the grant, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “Waste crime causes economic, environmental and social harm in every community it blights. That’s why our transformative Environmental Bill will be a driving force for change – improving the way we manage our waste by creating powers to introduce an electronic waste tracking system.

“Both companies put forward impressive proposals to help modernise the waste system and help level the playing field by ensuring all businesses are adopting legitimate waste management practices. This is great news for the environment but bad news for those determined to exploit the system.”

Minister for Implementation Simon Hart added: "Cutting down on waste is a top concern for the public, so I'm delighted to see these innovative proposals moving forward. They're a great example of why we're investing in the GovTech Catalyst programme to improve public services and solve some of society's biggest challenges."

The projects

Both companies, picked from a shortlist of five, will aim to prove the feasibility of using emerging technology such as Blockchain (cryptocurrency) and electronic chips and sensors to record and track individual movements of waste through the economy so authorities can check shipments contain what they state.

The smart waste tracking prototypes developed by Anthesis and Topolytics will be field tested and ready for expert review in beta version within 12 months. The prototypes will include all international waste shipments, tracking waste prior to shipping through to final destination.

Anthesis plans to use QR codes on mobile devices to record the ID of consignments uploaded to their ‘Vastum’ Blockchain system so transactions will be faster and error-free. Vastum will digitise the current paper-based system of waste transfer notes, consignment notes and other documentation required by legislation. Every waste movement will be a ‘three-party’ transaction between the waste producer, waste carrier and the site receiving it. The only information that will travel with the waste will be a unique transaction ID.

Simone Aplin, Technical Director at Anthesis, said: “We are thrilled to further develop and test Vastum. We believe it will deliver economic and environmental benefits that are truly transformational.

“A successful system will significantly reduce the administrative burden for the sector and generate the data needed to tackle waste crime, inform policy and guide vital investment in the circular economy.”

Meanwhile, Topolytics plans to utilise data from a range of devices including apps and sensors on waste containers or vehicles. It will work with the Ordnance Survey, Google Cloud and software developer SAP to build a working version of a data-driven tracking system, based around the company's WasteMap analytics platform. The system will track all inert and hazardous waste from households, local authorities, businesses and the construction sector, inputting and analysing data from invoicing records and weighbridge and bin weighing systems, amongst other sources.

Commenting on the project, Dr Michael Groves, Topolytics Founder and CEO, said: "This is a truly ground-breaking project and one that we are proud to be working on. It will transform waste regulation and the industry in the UK and has significant international potential. It further validates our use of machine learning, mapping, sensor systems and cutting-edge software to enable the waste industry to maximise the utility of materials and enable the circular economy.”

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