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Is digitising the recyclable a solution to efficient waste management?


The digital age is the most rapidly advancing period of human history, but not all of our daily processes have kept pace with this extraordinary revolution. Almost everyone seems to regularly recycle, yet according to Pew Trust, 40% of today’s global plastic waste is still discarded into the environment. The way we think about recycling seems to be failing us, and needs to be promptly corrected. 

Some might say that technology is part of the problem. The internet has brought all products within our reach in just a few clicks. Over a quarter of UK retail items are purchased online according to the ONS, hitting 37% at its peak in January 2021 during one of the UK’s Covid-19 lockdowns. Sadly the more we buy, the more plastic and packaging we produce. A Greenpeace study discovered that the UK alone generated 5.2 million tonnes of plastic waste in 2018, which would be enough to fill Wembley Stadium six times over. The accessibility of products in the digital age has contributed to the problem, but digitising our green processes can be part of the solution. 

Currently, the global recycling model is not fit for purpose, and has become overly complicated and inefficient. Only 15% of plastic packages are properly recycled, which is difficult to reconcile with Wrap’s 2021 findings that 88% of UK households considered recycling as an established norm. Digitising recycling can transform the experience to make it simpler, quicker, and easier to do. 

Is recycling inconvenient to many?

Recycling has become an inconvenient household chore that requires sorting, storing, and in some cases travel and research. The rates of recycled packages are not low because people are fundamentally against the concept, but due to onerous waste management structures that lead people not to recycle. For a person to recycle a package they have used, they must have the means to find a recycling receptacle. If you are out in public, or from a nation that uses common recycling points, it would be quicker and easier to dispose of a package in the nearest bin. Plastic packaging is going to landfills, or worse, because we are not actively making recycling convenient. 

Encourage users to recycle

That’s where a company like ours comes in. By digitising all the information that consumers need, we make finding their closest, appropriate recycling bin simple and practical. By embracing the booming gamification market, we can incentivise and encourage users to recycle their plastic waste more efficiently. People are far more engaged and motivated when they are immersed in an activity and rewarded for their efforts. In recent years, we’ve seen first-hand the success of educational, fitness, and workplace apps that have used gamification to encourage people to make positive changes to their lives.

At Bower, we want to replicate this to help make a meaningful impact on our environment. By rewarding those that recycle with tangible assets, like coupons or money through our app, we combine gamification with real-life financial benefits in order to maximise the incentive for our users to be greener. We achieve this because of our brand partnerships, including Nestlé, Unilever and L’Oreal, who ‘double up’ the rewards for recycling their packaging to encourage eco-friendly consumer behaviour. 

Recycling, when done correctly, demonstrates the power many individuals can have when they work towards a common good. However, the world is a busy place, and recycling is not always at the top of everyone’s priorities. As someone who runs their own business, I’m fully aware of how easy it is to forget the micro because of preoccupation with the macro. Having an app that can remind users to recycle, or is simply visible every time we open our phones, will encourage us to remember to do our bit for the environment. 

The advantages of digitising recycling are clear to see, but it’s important to think about how to maximise participation and efficiency, and how to scale this globally. Digitising guidance, like providing information about recycling points or product information, as well as providing incentives, will improve rates in countries where the procedures to recycle are already in place. However, in terms of scaling a digital recycling service, it is not just about the technology, but the existing infrastructure. 

Although recycling is a national and global issue, it begins with the individual, and then with the local community. Each community, council or district has its own system and method, obstructing any chance of a one-size-fits-all process. The solution to this is to provide those that want to recycle, which is almost everyone, with the tools, access, and encouragement they need. This is not entirely within a smartphone’s jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the knowledge of where and what to recycle can be easily provided to individuals who, collectively, can make a difference. 

If we want to improve recycling rates on a global scale, we must utilise modern technology to simplify our frameworks, rather than digitising our processes after the fact. A straightforward solution would be to include a QR code on all packaging that would inform users how to recycle it based on their location. We already have the demand to improve our recycling systems, but now we must make use of the technology at our disposal to meet it. This is where the investment community will be crucial, giving financial backing to transformational green startups and projects that the people and planet demand. In terms of the environment, the small actions of individuals add up to a big difference, and by digitising the necessary information for those small actions, we can make meaningful environmental action that bit easier. 

Suwar Mert is the co-founder and CEO of Bower.

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