Article written by Stewart McGrenary, Managing Director at Managing Director at Plunc. Plunc.com is based in Glasgow and is one of the UK's most trusted recyclers for high end electronics.
Sometimes a tool designed for one specific purpose can be adapted to serve a completely different purpose. And one such example could be that the blockchain (commonly associated with the use of cryptocurrencies) could be such a tool, in the fight against e-Waste, and possibly recycling as a whole.
With all the admirable, but seemingly futile attempts to reduce the tonnage of electronic waste recycling, and prevent further risk to the environment, could implementing a blockchain into e-waste management really solve the problem?
This article will examine the e-Waste problem briefly, but specificenough to explore the “blockchain solution” objectively to see if it has the potential for this expanded purpose that some experts suggest.
By the year 2040, the carbon footprint left by just the smartphone industry alone will be half of what the transportation industry is. This is quite significant, but can you imagine what that footprint is when you factor in the other sectors of the electronic device industry, like tablets, laptops and personal computers?
Smartphones are more likely to be discarded for a number of reasons, one of which is their difficulty to disassemble, due to their small size.
At any rate, the longer a pile of e-waste stays untouched in a landfill, the more potential there is for toxic substances to leak and pollute the ground, the air or the water supply. So to put it mildly, the alarm is understandable and justifiable.
As mentioned earlier, there has been much effort by well-meaning people and organizations to combat this growing and dangerous problem. There are many who believe that a 10-year old technology could potentially eradicate it – blockchains.
So exactly what is a blockchain? Has the technology been successfully adapted anywhere in the recycling industry? How could it be adapted for recycling e-waste?
What The Blockchain Is
A piece of information, known as a block, gets assigned a digital signature that is unique to it. Each piece of information that follows is another block, with its own signature. These connected blocks form a chain of information.
The blockchain system is also decentralized, meaning that editing and auditing belongs, not to one person or controlling organization – it belongs to the users in the network, something called peer-to-peer control.
Because of the unique signature and other processes for security, the information contained in these blocks is nearly impossible to corrupt.
Has the Blockchain Been Successfully Adapted to Recycling in General?
Blockchains has been adopted and adapted in other sectors of the recycling industry. A company called Plastic Bank was formed in Canada to diminish plastic waste around the globe. Operations currently exist in four developing countries, like Haiti and Peru and others. Expansion into other countries is in process.
They have recycling centers spread out in various locations. A person brings their plastic waste, like an empty water bottle, to the recycling center and the machine gives them the option to receive a reward in the form of a digital token, secured by blockchain. The token can be used to buy food or to charge their phone at the store, through their app.
Then they sell the recycled product to a buyer, which then gets reused. The companies who participate in this program loveitbecause the transaction information, with its digital signature, can be tracked and they know exactly where their money is going.
In France, the French Rail uses the blockchain to record specific information about each recycling station bin on the rail. The type of information collected is how much waste is collected, the type of waste collected, which attendant collected it, and where it went.
Their waste management was streamlined and the company saved more than $2,300 (U.S.) in operating expenses. This was accomplished with a pilot program.
How Could Blockchain Be Adapted For Recycling E-Waste?
The two examples we discussed in the last section demonstrate that when implemented, blockchain can record and secure every stage of recycling, from the moment someone brings their phone to a recycling center, and then to where the unit will eventually go. It boils down to accountability.
With older systems that are commonly in place, it is easy to cheat them, and companies have done so. A driver could be instructed to take a load of recyclables and dump it somewhere outside of the recycling center, and never recorded on their books.
If a blockchain were in place, any recycling company could install recyclingcenters, much like vending machines. Someone brings their old phone to recycle it, in exchange for a digital token that could buy them food or some other reward for recycling the phone.
Perhaps this example is a bit over-simplified, but still very possible. In fact, there may be even better ideas already in conception.
The bottom line is that the blockchain can be a massive help recording the data associated with recycling transactions from beginning to end. Accounting for the recycled phones – where they are, the places they were recycled at, the landfills they went to, etc. – will go a long way in reducing the problem.
There is something about specific data that can move a person or a company to act when that data puts them on the spot. If a landfill has a pile of e-Waste and has done nothing with it, the blockchain will tell you why. Again, bringing accountability to the table.
With a problem as large as e-waste, rallying people and organizations to an awareness of the problem does little for accountability, which may be at the core of this gargantuan crisis. That accountability is closely associated with the specificinformation.
The blockchain may very well be the solution, being able to record and secure specific information that promotes accountability, especially for those who cheat the system.
Having been successfully implemented in a global plastic recycler and a rail company, it is time to apply it to the e-waste problem.