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Plastic Collective’s Digital Solution: Using Data to Ensure Transparency and Impact

Plastic Collective’s Digital Solution: Using Data to Ensure Transparency and Impact

Image sourced from Plastic Collective.

We take a deeper look with Aly Khalifa into how Plastic Collective’s recycling software is integrated into its wider system to support communities with their plastic waste management.

Software origin – a need for good data

So, what was the motivation to design this software? We need to make sure we are having a real impact. For example, how can we be certain that plastic is actually being collected and recycled? Aly explains that having proper information about what is happening on-the-ground ensures transparency within Plastic Collective’s processes. This is the goal of the software. 

So, in order to carry out this ambition, good data is imperative: “Yes, we need to have good data and we need to have a good data management system and software is the best way to do it.” It’s no small feat. “The software requires a variety of tools for different parts of the process when developing a collection/recycling project. From there we can then potentially create, manage and implement – plastic credits.”

Developing the software

Developing the software has been a journey, but will the work ever be completely ‘finished’? 

“It’s an ongoing activity. I don’t think the work will ever be done, however over the past year and a half we’ve developed a significant group of tools. I would say it’s a digital solution that codifies what we’re doing in the physical world. Measuring the weight of various types of plastic such as scrap plastics being harvested, categorising it, looking at the effluent and assessing energy usage – the Internet of Things is key to this process being played out. We’re combining sensors of the real world and bringing that into a digital platform where you can see the data, but it’s really all about what’s happening in the real world.”

A three-layer cake solution

When it comes to applying the digital solution within local communities, Aly describes the process as a ‘three-layer cake’. The first layer concerns working with local partners to assess the local environment. In essence, how much plastic there is, as well as trying to understand what the local customs are: “That first step is really just trying to understand what is going on.” The second layer concerns project validation, with more questions needing to be answered: “Essentially, to carry out a project, we need to define and accurately describe what is happening. Who owns the land, who’s going to be doing what, how much material are we looking at, how are we going to go about doing it?”

And finally, the third layer, project verification, the day-to-day handling of things. Again, more questions are asked: “So this batch of material comes in – how was it handled, who worked on it, where did it come from, what is the energy footprint of that material?” What the buyers of this material will see at the end of this process is a certificate displaying what recycled material they have bought and where it came from. Aly emphasises that the material has gone through this three-layer cake process to get to this point.

Adapting this three-layer process to the local operators is a key challenge, with the software and sensor solutions customised to each project. “So, if you’re harvesting ghost nets in the Gulf of Carpentaria or you’re dealing with river waste in Indonesia you’re starting off with different communities, languages, and regulations that you have to be mindful of. Eventually you get to a user interface that probably looks pretty similar from one to the other, but really they’re quite different.” 

Another challenge was creating the three-layer cake workflow to begin with. Aly asserts that there is an information onboarding process in order to get into digitisation. “You can’t just ‘poof!’ and be digitised. It takes thoughtful reflection and cultural understanding and attention to training to do it properly.”

Figure 1: Plastic Collective’s Digital Solution. A close-up of the Dropoff, Batch and Transfer interfaces of the application.

Presenting the data

So how exactly is this data organised? Again, the key is presenting dashboards which are relevant to that particular person. It also depends on the regulations that projects have to follow. Aly gives examples: “There is an auditor dashboard if you are verifying to the Verra Plastic Standard, which shows you exactly what you need. In other cases, we might be selling to someone who’s been doing GRS (Global Recycling Standard), and they might be wanting to maintain provenance of that material thereafter. Therefore, you would have a GRS dashboard or a certificate that allows GRS to then maintain that chain of custody throughout their system.”

Project owners will also want to check the amount of material they have collected and recycled on a particular day too, “and so there’s different dashboards depending on who that user is and the information they’re looking for. Ultimately, all this information is living within a comprehensive database that is cloud-based, but is realistic on data transfer with remote communities.” The automation of inventory tracking is key.

Figure 2: Plastic Collective’s Digital Solution. The Facilities Map, recycled material Details and Worker features of the application.

Challenges

So, what challenges has developing the software brought? Aly explains that the IOT aspect to the software has allowed Plastic Collective to circumvent previous methods of tracking and collecting data, that streamline the work Aly and his team carry out. “There’s a lot of remote data technology out there which is built on a legacy system – taking analogue instrumentation, then digitising that information, recording it to data loggers, and then batching data transfers. I think one of the breakthroughs for us was realising if you go straight to an IOT sensor, you can leapfrog a lot of steps and expensive equipment.” Profitability is important to be conscious of or else nothing can get done.

The IOT element is also useful for reality checks and perform preventative intervention on the machinery in case of a malfunction: “You can say ‘Hold on, processing this material used to take me 1 kilowatt hour, now it’s taking three 3 kilowatt hours, maybe I have a machine service issue, maybe one of my bearings has gone etc.’ You can actually have diagnostics and real-time data that help us support these projects in a way that wouldn’t normally become apparent until there were grinding noises, but then it would probably be too late.” This improves functionality, which is essential in the rural communities we work with.

The language barrier is an issue Aly was expecting to encounter: “Being able to deal with different languages was going to be – and will continue to be – a challenge for us.” Dialects and uncommon languages which are harder to translate accurately add to this issue. “And even the things that do get translated can have different meanings for different communities, so to be really sensitive to that is extremely important.” Sensitivity and respect of other cultures is paramount; things like data security, personal information, even taking photographs, are things that can be taken for granted, so respecting boundaries is essential in this line of sustainability.

Another consideration for Aly and his team is that livelihoods can potentially be affected by the projects. “We also know in the world of recycling a lot of people are capturing materials along routes that have developed over their own livelihood. They find that they can get good materials here, good materials there, and well those routes become a kind of trade secret to making a living.” Building trust with these communities is important then? “Yes, of course. It’s about letting these people know that we’re not trying to find someone cheaper that can hit that same route, we’re just trying to make sure that everything is done safely and properly and meets an agreed standard so they can maximise their income by linking their supply chain with others globally.”

Further developments to the software

Future opportunities to expand the software’s focus are also on the horizon, with the potential to not only help regional communities but also look at business-to-business/post industrial waste that also needs addressing. 

Aly explains: “We tend to react to what consumers are seeing but the industrial waste element is just gigantic, and those industries need a tool to control and monitor their operations.” Not only would this allow businesses to potentially start applying for plastic credits but would provide an education on what good can be done in a wider sense. “It allows them to start seeing how much material is produced, how cost is involved, and how some of these interventions can be good for the community, the planet, and for business. So, I think being able to present data to those parties on dashboards that they want to look at is also important, and that’s one of the things that we want to make progress on.”

Helping the environment

Has the process of designing this software been rewarding then? “We all want to see that the work that we do makes a difference. I think probably the most rewarding thing that I see is that by allowing a community to have the data published in such a way that it can generate a plastic credit, it can really amplify their income.” And of course, it’s not just the financial aspect which is affected, it’s a great win for the environment too. “Animals are choking and dying from these materials, so you can have a measurable, visible impact on the environment and the communities that they’re in. If this software creates a nexus that allows that connection to go from one part of the planet to the other so that those things can happen through new recycling centers, I just think that’s extremely rewarding.”

Although he is intimately involved with developing the software, the most surprising thing of all is that Aly isn’t a software engineer by trade. “I’m coming from a hardware background, working with software people and coordinating a lot of different experts, but I work at this because I really care about getting plastic out of the environment. sometimes there’s nothing like being committed to a cause to make you learn new things!”

Our purpose at Plastic Collective is to show people how to find value in plastics as a resource, to understand which plastics can be recycled or recovered, and provide solutions to eliminate those which can’t be, thus preventing disposal of plastics. This will create sustainable circular economies which no longer rely on the ‘take-make-dispose’ attitude.

For more information, please contact us today.

How is plastic pollution affecting Indonesia communities

How is plastic pollution affecting Indonesia communities

We talked to founder and CEO Louise Hardman about Plastic Collective’s latest community project in Java, Indonesia.

Like many places across the globe, discarded plastics are putting extreme stress on the natural environment, local communities and surrounding wildlife. Working with Plastic Collective’s collaborative partners, Louise and her team are currently designing and delivering a project in a remote area of East Java to alleviate damage caused by plastic packaging leakage into the environment and farming communities.

The images we see of plastic bottles infiltrating the local environment does not concern Louise the most though. “HDPE and PET bottles usually get snapped up pretty quickly by other recyclers, which end up in a recycling facility; then you’re left with the soft plastics, which are often the most dangerous thing left in the environment.” The soft plastics are the ones more likely to blow away and infiltrate multiple spaces: “it blows into waterways, it blocks drains, and it causes a lot of problems for nature, wildlife and people – it gets into the farmland, affecting the cattle and animals.” Soft plastic debris are a threat on multiple levels.

Why does Indonesia have a plastics pollution problem?

The crux of the idea is to operate recyclable plastic waste banks on a ‘hub and spoke’ model with the aim of collecting a minimum of 100kg of material a week. Louise explains: “the manufacturing hub is where all the raw material arrives, coming in from all the different waste collection sites (the spokes), and we build capacity from there.” Louise explains that essentially there are three stages to these recycling industry programs.

Figure 1: Plastic Collective’s Hub and Spoke Model

The first stage is recovery – that’s the collection and delivery to the site. The second is concentration, which is to reduce the volume of plastic materials into bales or shreds – this means it’s prepared to be processed and can be easily transported. And the third part is the recycling of the materials, where the plastic gets remoulded and transformed into other products. These three elements form the basis for a circular economy.

Louise explains that the problem is that this part of Indonesia has irregular collection services, leaving the onus on each household to deal with the discarded materials they produce instead of the Indonesian government. Although the average amount of plastic discarded (approx. 20kg/ person/ year) is considerably less compared with most Western countries (many of which discard 100kg of plastics / person / year), it unfortunately leaves most Indonesians with one of three options when it comes to its disposal. “Families either have to burn it, bury it or dump it. Many remote communities will generally rake all their plastic together with their leaves and burn it in their backyards. And other places will collect tonnes of plastic and dump it in unoccupied land or into rivers.” Properly managed landfills are just not yet part of local government waste management systems.

Why is Western Plastic Pollution ending up in Asia?

Aside from a lack of local infrastructure, Louise makes it clear that external influences have exacerbated Indonesia’s domestic problem with waste disposal. Over the last few decades the rest of the world was conveniently offloading its waste to China – until they shut the door in 2018. “China was getting fed up because…this rubbish was getting dumped into their cities and rural areas. Now their decision to clean up their country has exposed this massive global problem.” Since then, the issues of single-use plastic, ocean plastic and microplastics have dominated the global sustainability agenda.

Unfortunately, places such as Indonesia and Malaysia became the next dumping ground which included a lot of non-recyclable waste. Indonesia currently produces 6.8 million tons of plastic waste per year, with only about 10% of it ending up in recycling centers (source: Borgen Project).  In countries like these that lack waste management infrastructure,“[t]hey open shipping containers filled to the brim with rubbish [from developed countries]. A black market was created where discarded materials were being dumped in towns – whole areas covered in plastic rubbish that previously went to China.” 

After a backlash, many Western countries had to apologise and agree to deal with the waste themselves, Australia being one of them. Australia has created a National Plastic Action Partnership plan to boost industries domestically. This is good news for Louise and her team: “In Indonesia they need the infrastructure, education and training to be able to deal with the waste, and so this project will be a good way of being able to demonstrate how it can be done.”

Figure 2: A dump site in Les Village, Indonesia. This is one of the communities that Plastic Collective collaborates with.

How does Plastic Collective work with the community?

So, did the local people need convincing of a project such as this? In a nutshell, no. The local communities are enthusiastically embracing the project. “There are low levels of income and a lack of jobs in these communities”, Louise explains, “however, they’re very inventive and creative, and so know the value of things.” How does that translate exactly? “Well, they seek the value in all discarded materials. If they can cash plastics in, the whole community will make sure that they’ll collect them.” 

From the way Louise explains the project processes in depth, it certainly looks like a colossal task putting all these elements together. Coordinating with the existing waste banks, local transportation services and other entities operating within the region – how does it all fit together, especially when you don’t live where the project is taking place? 

One person in particular was instrumental in helping the project gather place, Lukman. After having visited the region in 2019, Louise was contacted by various people about the projects Plastic Collective was undertaking, Lukman being one of them. “He contacted me with a Plastic Action Network proposal where he wanted to set up a recycling program in Surabaya, but unfortunately there weren’t enough funds to do it. It’s a shame because it was a really good idea.” So, Louise and Lukman kept in contact, and when the Java project came up, it became clear that Lukman would be the key person in helping coordinate the project. Moving to the region meant that Lukman could move around the area and direct the development of the recycling hubs.

How is the Coronavirus pandemic and local challenges affecting the Java project?

Of course, projects don’t always go exactly according to plan. The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic last year meant Louise’s team, who are based in Australia, Singapore, Europe and North America, were unable to visit Java and the potential plastic waste sites. Lukman has been essential in coordinating the program on the ground with Plastic Collective. This part of Indonesia is currently a Covid red-zone, with cases rapidly increasing. Lukman is unable to leave the area he’s based in, but can move within limits. 

Education seems to be the most prominent casualty of Covid; usually workshops would be carried out but a ban on group gatherings has meant that Louise’s team have had to rethink how they distribute information. Louise again points to Lukman’s responsibility as the main representative for this project: “he’s taking printed booklets to every person involved with the waste banks.”

Local considerations can also pose headaches. Louise outlines that choosing a suitable hub is where they’re up to in terms of progress, but that the one they had agreed was most suitable has encountered a stumbling block: “unfortunately, the man who runs this site is quite sick, with his wife reluctant to have machinery that could be noisy in their community.” The hesitancy regarding machinery can be felt within the wider community and it’s clear that adapting to the needs of the local community, the key stakeholder, is essential.

What does the future hold for the Java project and other Plastic Collective Projects?

In spite of all the potential issues, the project is gearing up to be a success. Do you see many similarities with other projects? “I can definitely see that communities feel an immense sense of shame at the amount of waste product that is around them, and how this can be transformed into pride once the right training, tools and equipment are put in place.” This pride is felt most by those at the bottom rung of society, “I’ve witnessed the poorest people as waste pickers, and after the project has been implemented, they become almost like the toast of the town, they’re really valuable people in their communities. So, there’s this pride, and it’s just incredible seeing their faces – I love it!”

Do you think projects such as this will inspire more recycling initiatives to pop up in the near future? “Yes, for sure. It’s all about demonstrating to people what the possibilities are and how the simple pieces of equipment required add value.” Louise explains that there’s a sliding scale of value of the waste: “it shows people that if you collect it, you get a certain amount for it, if it’s clean you increase your price for it, if it’s clean and baled you get even more for it, and so on.” And of course, the local community can repurpose the waste they’ve collected themselves into things like fence posts and irrigation piping to send water around local farms. “The possibilities of supporting these communities to create products for themselves are endless.”

Projects such as these are ambitious, but very, very rewarding. Collaboration is the key, Louise says. “We’re trying something a bit different, and it’s very much based on working with all organisational levels: with the community, with large corporations, with experts in plastic recycling, with manufacturers and with community groups.” Collaboration in order to create a project which empowers communities, cleans our ecosystem and is profitable. “That’s the key thing.”

Our purpose at Plastic Collective is to show people how to find value in plastics as a resource, to understand which plastics can be recycled or recovered, and provide solutions to eliminate those which can’t be, thus preventing disposal of plastics. This will create sustainable circular economies which no longer rely on the ‘take-make-dispose’ attitude.

For more information, please contact us today.

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