The top innovations to watch in the resources and waste sector

resource management innovations

Jessica Bradley explores the strides being made towards sustainable waste management by examining the top innovations in the sector to watch in 2024.

Facing a multitude of pressures from financial constraints to an ageing workforce, the UK’s resources & waste management sector stands at a critical juncture.

The UK’s resources and waste management sector has transformed in recent decades from just disposing of waste to supporting sustainable waste management. But there are mounting pressures facing the sector.

First, the workforce’s skills gap is continuing to put pressure on the sector at a time when technological advancements and legislation are also placing greater demands on the workforce to have the right skills and experience. This means the sector increasingly has to rely on a highly trained workforce when the ageing profile of employees is threatening the loss of technical knowledge and skills.

In addition, the financial strain on local authorities is adding a significant barrier to their ability to deliver on the government’s Resources and Waste Strategy for England, which focuses on minimising waste, promoting resource efficiency and, ultimately, moving towards a circular economy.

Green skills
CIWM trainer Jane Hall, Director, Green Edge Applications, has written about how the fast pace of change is creating green skills gaps in the waste industry.

The government’s strategy mandates that every local authority must initiate household food waste recycling collection by March 2025. Currently, only half of waste collection authorities provide household food waste collection services, which means 160 local authorities will be required to design, implement, and launch these services within the next year.

Meeting the strategy’s goals will require additional funding for local authorities to develop existing and new services, industry experts say. However, according to The District Councils Network, many local authorities predict they will have a funding shortfall of £500 million across the next two financial years, and 43% say they will probably have to reduce waste collection efforts.

The reduced financing has a significant impact on how waste is managed by councils, including the range of materials that can be collected, the method of collection, and the potential effectiveness and sustainability of how waste is managed, says Amy Hooper, innovation manager at Biffa.

“Investment in modern technologies, which can be expensive but have the potential to provide greater efficiency of current services and better recovery of materials, is often de-prioritised. It is an even bigger struggle for local authorities to find resources and funding for innovating beyond this,” she says.

“Many innovative solutions take time to implement, the outcome is uncertain at first, and they often require multiple iterations before successful implementation, which all adds to the expense of engagement.”

As a consequence, much more innovation in waste sorting and recycling is needed for the sector to meet the strategy’s targets within the financial constraints facing local authorities.

Many innovative solutions take time to implement, the outcome is uncertain at first, and they often require multiple iterations before successful implementation.

Thankfully, the private waste sector is planning to invest more than £10 billion in new infrastructures over the next decade to boost waste recovery and recycling from homes and businesses across England. 

Ongoing uncertainty surrounding waste reforms and legislative changes is another continual challenge for the sector, which makes its investment even more crucial, says Rory Brien, general manager of waste management partnership re3.

“If reforms are not correctly implemented with sufficient support from government, this will mean making necessary plant and service upgrades will be almost impossible,” he says. “This is considerably challenging at a time of financial pressures on local authorities and waste management organisations.”

And this is where innovations including AI come into play, Brien says. 

“If used correctly and in the right application, robotics and AI will help support data-driven investment, and in an increasingly difficult employment arena, robotics will help reduce the challenge of finding suitable staff for our operations,” he says. 

But will the innovations on the horizon be enough to overcome the significant barriers facing the sector, and help the UK become a global leader in waste management?

Reducing and reusing waste

reuse

There has been much innovation in recent years with the aim of reducing waste generation, involving compostable materials, zero-waste packaging, plastic alternatives, and technologies that facilitate reusing materials. For example, there is a growing number of innovations enabling the reuse of plastic waste by turning it into bricks, roads, and furniture

In the UK, many of these ventures are being increasingly supported by funding initiatives. In March 2023, the government announced funding for projects looking at plastic packaging solutions. The winners include projects that will assess the viability of plant-based biodegradable polymers to replace fossil fuel-based plastics, new sorting and recycling technology and novel digital approaches to packaging design. 

And since households also have an important role to play in recycling waste, funding was also awarded to numerous projects aiming to help improve “nudging” consumer recycling behaviour at home.

“As we strive towards a more circular economy, we will need to collect more niche waste streams from households, and engaging consumers in the process will be key,” says Hooper. 

“This will require rethinking current models of collection alongside investment in trials of new models. Often it is private companies trialling and introducing these models due to local authority budget constraints, delaying or limiting scalability. Scaling impactful solutions would be more effective through a national framework introduced by local authorities.”

Waste-to-energy technologies

Energy

According to the International Energy Agency, there could be a threefold rise in energy consumption this century. In response to this, an increasing number of developments in converting waste into energy, such as advanced biogas production and new incineration technologies, are aiming to help meet the rising demand.

Not only is organic solid waste a major source of contamination, but it’s also a store of biodegradable materials that can be recycled – increasingly, using unconventional/advanced composting methods that can help to control pollutants. These methods can reduce waste, conserve resources, and support sustainable agriculture by creating a closed-loop system.

However, innovation is being stymied by unclear regulation and a lack of government subsidies, says Ulugbek Azimov, associate professor of mechanical and construction engineering at Northumbria University, who carried out a review in 2021 of the progress in biofuel production in the UK. 

Making value from waste is very challenging,” he says. “It requires a lot of initial investment to develop the cost-effective technology.”

Azimov recently developed a small-scale organic Rankine cycle unit that can produce electricity using agricultural waste and implemented it in a Colombian pig farm. Scaling up technologies such as this, so they can benefit from economies of scale, is the biggest challenge, he says, as UK investors generally aren’t interested.

Additionally, in response to incoming battery passports from 2027, which means every battery’s lifespan will be recorded, Azimov is developing a battery produced from agricultural waste. It’s currently at the prototype stage, and he’s exploring how this can also be scaled up.

Smart waste management systems

Smart bins

An increasing number of UK cities are implementing innovations such as the Internet of Things (IoT), smart bins, and data-driven waste collection strategies, while technological advances now enable smart bins to use AI to identify and categorise waste and distinguish between landfill and recyclable waste.

“With growing legislation concerning the need for greater recovery of materials, the rising costs of operations, as well as the increasing focus on improving the health and safety of employees in our operations, the use of AI and robotics in our facilities presents a significant opportunity to deliver the next edge to our industry-leading services,” says Hooper.

Recent research suggests that “human-centred” technologies – for example, smart bins tailored to people’s different needs, based on a combination of engineering and social sciences – will be effective in influencing people’s behaviour to improve recycling.

One constraint with smart bins has been the issue of powering them efficiently and effectively. But technologies are now overcoming this. Sunderland, for example, recently installed solar-powered “smart compactor bins” with fill-level sensors across the city.

Waste sorting and recycling

Sorting

More AI and machine learning technologies have been emerging in recent years to improve waste sorting. This is especially the case in cities, whose rising populations and visitor numbers often put an incredible strain on waste management.

“Significant strides have been made in technologies aimed at sorting residual waste to extract recyclables,” says Theresa Mörsen, waste and resources policy officer at Zero Waste Europe. 

“The European Commission has recognised the significance of mixed waste sorting by integrating it into its recent Sustainable Finance Package as one of the activities substantially contributing to a circular economy.”

One of the major areas of innovation has been around AI algorithms that can classify waste so that sorting plant operators can better see which materials are going in and out, using simultaneous localisation and mapping technology and instance segmentation methods that can detect objects and separate their boundaries.

Technology can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of waste sorting and processing.

In 2021, re3 installed a AI-powered robotic waste picking system at its material recycling facility in Reading that is able to be retrofitted. It has been running smoothly ever since, Brien says, and provides useful insight into what materials are coming into the facility, which allows staff to review efficiency and make operational changes.

“When we first looked at this technology it was relatively new in our industry, so we had to be comfortable that it’d work, decide the best KPIs to measure its performance, then we had to ensure that it could easily be integrated into the daily operations,” he says.

Brien says the robot allows re3 to improve capture rates and achieve a higher yield of items for recycling, and the company is now considering installing more AI and robotics to “future proof” its plants. 

Advanced sorting technologies and automated processes in waste management facilities can help to address the expected rise in demand for skilled workers, says Janek Vähk, zero pollution policy manager at Zero Waste Europe. 

“Moreover, technology can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of waste sorting and processing, thereby optimising resource utilisation and potentially creating more opportunities for skilled workers in the sector,” he says.

Policies and regulations

Parliament

There is a lot of talk of uncertainty around reforms that involve the waste management sector. But there have also been some significant political developments in recent years driving innovation. 

The extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations, for example, require producers – usually brand owners – to pay for the treatment of all packaging waste, including local authority collection, and litter. The regulations – which have started to be implemented this year – will involve variable fees, depending on the recyclability of material used in production.

Another huge incoming policy that will affect waste management is the deposit return scheme, set to be introduced in 2025, which will introduce a charge associated with certain packaging items such as some plastic bottles, and metal cans.

Consumers will pay an extra charge at the point of purchase and be expected to take the empty container to a “reverse vending machine”, at retailers’ and other sites, to get their full deposit back.  

Mörsen argues that current policies should be used to improve waste reduction. 

“We should harness the current EU policies, like the Waste Framework Directive (WFD), to set targets for food waste and textile waste reduction, which would result in less waste having to be managed,” says Mörsen.

“For textiles in particular, an EPR scheme that sets collection, reuse, local reuse, and recycling targets could boost the European reuse and recycling sectors.

“In addition, biowaste collection should be more effectively addressed in the WFD and diverted from mixed waste via specific targets.”

Global perspectives

Global

There are countless examples of innovations in waste management across the world, many of which could be adapted and adopted in the UK. 

Singapore has been using waste-to-energy as a waste management strategy for decades. Its Tuas Nexus project, for example, will involve an integrated waste management facility processing incinerable waste, household recyclables and source-segregated food waste, with a water reclamation plant, which will treat used water.

The project is designed on circular economy principles, using the co-digestion of food waste with used water sludge to increase the yield of biogas production. This biogas will used to increase the plant’s thermal efficiency and power generation to enable it to be self-sufficient, and it will also export more power to the electricity grid.

When it comes to tackling plastic pollution, there are countless examples around the world helping to reduce and prevent plastic pollution through waste management, nudging and product design, many supported by global funding initiatives to help them set up and scale up. 

There are also numerous global research projects, such as OMNI, which uses AI and machine learning to help mechanically separate food-grade polypropylene from household waste, and reuse it for food-contact applications.

Looking to the future

Environment

There are countless examples of innovation across the world and the UK to help tackle waste management and drive the industry towards a circular economy. From start-ups to global initiatives, there is no shortage of expertise and willingness to drive positive change.

The potential impact these innovations can have on the future of waste management is monumental. However, the expertise and dedication behind these innovations is hugely reliant on the funding needed to scale up, and the regulations in place to ensure they’re used safely.

As the UK’s waste management sector faces significant funding challenges, time will tell if emerging technologies will be able to overcome the financial challenges that many fear will persevere.

Do you want to learn more about the biggest innovations in resource management? Explore upcoming CIWM webinars and develop your professional knowledge. CIWM members have exclusive free access to all its webinars.

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