Interview with Cameron Smith, Founder of Unwaste.io, UK based social enterprise.
Tell me little bit about yourself.
I was born and brought up in Scotland, UK. As a young child, the UK was going through a public services “crisis”, so littering and vandalism were widespread. Since then, attitudes to litter, and waste management systems, have improved greatly but due to those early memories I have always had an antipathy to waste.
When I was seventeen I spent a year working as a teaching assistant in Zimbabwe and this sparked a lifelong interest in Sub-Saharan Africa.
I completed my education in the UK and worked there for several years as a Software Engineer for web-based systems (at that time the web was just becoming a “mass phenomenon”).
In the 2000s I took on a software engineering contract in Maputo and, well “life happened” and I ended up getting married and settling in Mozambique. I moved into operational management and ran several businesses in the automotive and engineering sectors over the following years, but in 2019 I decided to set up my own company, using digitally-based services that worked for the reality of Sub-Saharan Africa.
I looked at various sectors but the one which stood out for me was plastic. During my time in Mozambique the big beverage companies had switched from glass bottles to plastic bottles, and “plastic bags for everything” had become endemic. Municipal waste which used to be mainly decomposable, was now mixed in with plastic, causing severe urban drainage problems.
What do you aim to achieve with the wastebase app?
I prefer to call wastebase a “digital platform” because the app is only the tip of the iceberg — most of the data processing and storage is done in the cloud, and the data analysis is done via our web portal https://wastebase.org
The first thing we aim to achieve is to collect, in many locations across Africa, structured data about which corporate entities are contributing to plastic bottle pollution — as a first step towards establishing strong Extended Producer Responsibility regimes in all countries on the continent. This is why our “Wastebase Data” platform is the only one (as far as we know!) which identifies waste items at the level of individual products and barcodes — which can be reliably linked to brands and the corporate owners of the brands.
We cannot just treat plastic waste as “ugly litter which appeared by magic”. We have to trace it back to the source, so that everyone involved in designing, producing, selling and consuming the product which contained that plastic, contributes to taking it out of the environment — and ideally back into a circular economy.
We are also working to provide an app-based marketplace which we call “Wastebase Deal”, through which Waste Picker organizations can easily and regularly sell plastic to reputable in-country recyclers and reprocessors. Currently, waste pickers struggle to get much economic value from plastic, even though they are the people best-placed to collect it properly. This is a bigger challenge than data collection so we are taking it step by step. We are currently setting up pilot projects in Kenya and Mozambique, to encourage firms who either mechanically recycle plastic, or who produce new products from recyclate, to get in touch with us.
What is Unwaste.Io approach in rethinking the issue of plastic pollution?
What is absolutely critical is to incorporate the full cost of the end-of-life treatment of all single-use plastic, in the retail sale price of the product which contains that plastic. That is the only way many firms in the production and distribution chain will apply the appropriate capital, technology and operational know-how to deal with the problem at the root.
Currently such firms deal with end-of-life as a “side issue”, to be paid for out of their marketing or CSR budget — whereas it needs to become part of their core business.
EPR backed by government legislation is critical to achieving this, because it requires all firms in a given country to provide the same level of treatment. Otherwise the more innovative companies which try to provide better treatment, will need to push their sale price up higher than the other companies which do NOT treat their waste. This will cause the innovative companies to lose out on sales, as Africa is a very price-conscious market for beverages.
Once such EPR regimes in place, the value-chain for in-country recycling will work much better, allowing innovation by local and global entrepreneurs.
With the data you have collected so far, how would you paint the picture of plastic pollution?
We have now collected about 50,000 points of data across six countries in southern and eastern Africa. Key takeaways from this are:
I. the majority of single-use plastic bottle waste in the region is produced by a relatively small number of mature, well-established companies. The Coca-Cola Company (which is the global leader in terms of plastic pollution) is overall number one in the region, but you also have several successful regional businesses such as Bakhresa, Brookside Dairy, Trade Kings and METL. These are all companies which have the capital and competence to try innovative approaches. Interestingly, Coca-Cola has done quite a lot of innovation in other continents — for instance in terms of increasing recycled content of bottles, unfortunately they do not seem to apply these approaches in Africa.
II. to set up a basic PET bottling operation selling cheap water or soda is actually quite a cheap operation nowadays, leading to a multitude of small companies in the market — I think in Kenya there are well over one hundred. Essentially all beverage bottling plants are highly efficient machines for producing plastic waste, so it is scary to realize how easy it is to create another one.
III. waste bottles tend to have very high concentrations around leisure venues such as bars, restaurants and informal drinking spots. More could be done by the bottling industry and municipalities to raise awareness of the owners and customers of these venues to efficiently channel discarded bottles into Municipal collection systems, rather than throw them on the landfill where they become expensive to collect.
IV. the perception of sodas as a “lifestyle choice” has led to an increase in volume of plastic waste produced per year in Africa. Whereas in Europe, many consumers have begun to challenge the predominance of single-use plastic for beverages — so it is much more common to find people carrying around a reusable water bottle, for instance.
Will plastic brand audits push the industry to responsibility or government to action?
Brand Audits, especially high-profile ones such as the BreakFreeFromPlastic annual worldwide audit are an important first step in raising awareness among other stakeholders, and the general public, about how serious the problem is. Not just in terms of reading the data but in terms of engaging people as volunteers. The first time someone personally participates in a brand audit, they will be shocked by how much waste plastic is “hiding in plain sight” in African cities.
However, what we would like to get to is a situation whereby regular, small-scale local audits are performed in every African city, so that citizens and other stakeholders can get a nearly real-time picture of what the single-use plastic waste situation is in their neighborhood, and how it is evolving over time.
We have coined a phrase for this “BPH — Bottles Per Hectare” and you can read more about it here: https://unwaste.medium.com/estimating-bottles-per-hectare-in-an-african-city-9dbd28444b3e . We recently added a new “Group Activities” feature to the Wastebase platform to make it easier to organize group audits directly in the app. Next, we are now working on a feature which will allow regular auditors to define specific locations (such as a particular stretch of road, or a transit terminal) for those “Group Activities”, so that the BPH can be automatically calculated over time.
What is the role of digital technology in supporting better, cheaper and more efficient plastic waste management?
I think that there are many useful roles that digital technology can play.
First, is getting clear data about how much waste plastic is in fact being discarded into the environment. Plastic item producers have detailed data in their manufacturing systems about exactly how much raw plastic they consume, and how many items they produce, but after that nobody is interested in getting accurate data — mainly because the plastic item producers don’t have any financial responsibility for the post-consumer life of the item (again, we get back to EPR!).
So, Wastebase helps with that for a specific kind of waste plastic — single use bottles and beverage containers.
A second stage would be to track individual items throughout their lives. For high-value items such as computers or domestic appliances, some people are already doing this via the “Internet of Things”, for instance with radio frequency identification chips (RFID).
However, for low value items such as single-use plastic bottles, the tracking tag can cost more than the actual packaging! So one challenge is to put a unique identifier on the bottle which is not easily damaged, and can be read by simple technology. There is a project in Europe called the “#DigitalWatermark” which is looking at this, but it is at a very early stage. We’d be very keen to talk to any manufacturer in Africa who would like to trial something similar with Wastebase, as our platform has the capacity to track individual items — if they can be reliably identified.
Finally, digital technology can help with the physical process of recycling or repurposing the waste. Waste Pickers waste a lot of time and effort physically moving around trying to find where and to whom they can sell waste plastic — so our “Wastebase Deal” module uses digital tech to make that cheaper and easier for them.
How do you amplify data about plastic waste found in the environment?
There are two main ways we do this.
Firstly, our data portal at wastebase.org provides anyone (without logging in) the tools to query, browse and share the data in our platform. Also we have several visualizations of the data and we will be adding more over the coming months. Your readers can see more about the different ways to access our data here: https://www.unwaste.io/data .
Secondly, our app let users directly share the data they have collected, on the social media platforms of their choice. What we want to achieve in Africa is something similar to the #2minutebeachclean hashtag on Twitter. With the crucial difference that the tweet is linked to structured data about the specific product, brand and corporation which produced that waste.
What are some of the challenges you are facing when gathering data with the application?
The biggest challenge we have found is finding partners on the ground who can collect and (especially) structure the data on a regular basis, in all the countries of the continent. Some countries have well-established environmental NGOs with good experience of Zero Waste or Circular Economy approaches, whereas others do not.
Recently we have also started reaching out to plastic recycling firms, who are well positioned to take periodic samples of the raw collected waste plastic that they are receiving.
We are also preparing an “Extended Producer Responsibility Internship”, to help our partners with the research perspective.
If any of your readers are working on the Circular Economy for Plastic, or EPR, and would like to receive free training to use our free Wastebase Data platform, they are very welcome to get in touch with us at: email@example.com