One of the key pillars of the Circular Economy is designing waste out of the system – but in order for this to happen we first need to understand the current situation. According to the World Bank, humans produce two billion tonnes of urban waste each year, with that figure set to rise to three and a half billion tonnes by 2050. Today, at least a third of this waste is mismanaged through burning or dumping, causing lasting environmental damage.
For a recent episode of our podcast on the Circular Economy, we chatted to Michael Groves of Topolytics, a data aggregation company that makes the world’s waste visible, verifiable and valuable. By tracking waste on a global scale, Topolytics provides companies and organisations with trustworthy data and interactive maps that they can use to build better business cases and improve both commercial and environmental outcomes.
As awareness rises of environmental issues such as plastic pollution, companies and organisations are increasingly under pressure to understand what happens to their waste. The answers, however, are not easy to come by – in many cases because waste management is outsourced and the processes are somewhat opaque. At the same time, waste management industries are rife with new technologies that allow the recycling of materials that were previously difficult to process. “What they need to understand is: where is that material? What does that look like? What does the map of materials look like?” says Michael. Answering these questions is necessary for companies to effectively recover the material.
“Our mission is to make the global system of interconnected materials movements more visible,” explains Michael. “There are many thousands of companies and organizations involved, many thousands of different materials, and many millions of movements of that material.” In order to make sense of it all, Topolytics has to work with multiple data sets from diverse sources such as apps, sensors, databases and spreadsheets. The company then applies machine learning to clean, process and analyse the data, and provide insights and visualisation tools that identify the value of waste and opportunities to harness that value.
Like any human system, waste is messy. “There isn’t a single source of truth,” says Michael.
“There isn't a single perfect, beautiful digital footprint or data set for all of that material, whether it be plastics, paper, metals, chemicals or food.” That’s why Topolytics aggregates data. “What we're good at is breaking it down, cleaning it, normalizing it so that you can then build it up again, and actually start to make decisions based on what you're seeing.”
One of the features that makes Topolytics unique is its use of geospatial data and mapping to help visualise and understand vast amounts of data. “I'm a geographer, so I see the world through those eyes,” explains Michael. “The geospatial aspect of waste is crucial to understanding what happens to it and what could happen to it.” As well as the spatial relationship to waste’s physical journey, mapping also allows stakeholders to grasp the global scale of the system. Topolytics is like an atlas for waste, allowing users to zoom in to the level of individual bins and zoom out to see the bigger picture.
According to Michael, ultimately, companies and organisations must reduce the volume of material entering the waste system. “But,” he says, “where that material is being disposed of – whether it be from a retail operation or our own bins at home – making sure that it isn't just disappearing into a hole in the ground or into rivers is the clear and present danger that we have to try and address.” At the same time, he believes attention must be focused on finding substitute materials, reducing the amount of raw material used in products and packaging, and maximising how long a product is kept in use.
Data provided by Topolytics can feed into companies’ waste reduction ambitions and help them achieve their Circular Economy goals, by linking insights about what happens to materials in the waste system with purchasing and supply chain systems. In doing so, the benefits are both financial and environmental. “I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” says Michael, “and that’s something that motivates me.”