Before I start firing questions at Michael, my charming guest this week, I’d like to say a few words about the waste management industry.
My background, at least my entry into the environmental world, was with a terrific plastic recycling company called Plastic Expert and a fantastic entrepreneur called Kevin Basham. The experience of working closely with an environmental entrepreneur lead me to start this business and set up an agency that has supported numerous brilliant waste management companies of various sizes, like Just Clear, Norris and Junk Buster.
Throughout my experiences, one thing that has always struck me as odd is how little digitization there is in the waste management industry. A current client of mine is Carl Bennett from Waste Quote Supermarket, and we’ve talked at length about how archaic the industry is, with waste-dinosaurs refusing to adapt to tech. I’ve had the same chat with industry expert Stephen Bourdet, who agrees that technology is not being integrated quickly enough.
This is why I’m thoroughly grateful for my guest, Michael Groves. Michael is the CEO of Topolytics, a data and analytics business specifically for the waste management industry. Data is so ridiculously important to waste businesses now, that if you don’t have any, you are operating somewhat aimlessly. Wastetech is something that I’m passionate about, especially considering many of my customers are in the waste industry I want to transmit the importance of Wastetech through this interview…
Welcome Michael, thanks for answering some of my questions here. To start with, I know you have a pretty esteemed career history, but can you give me the highlight reel and tell me how you got here?
Hi Joseph. Thank you for your interest in what we are doing. It’s hugely appreciated! As for me, I’m a Geographer with a PhD in geospatial science and earth observation. I then pioneered sustainable forest management certification across South-East Asia before setting up a communications consultancy that specialised in annual sustainability reports for big companies. I sold this in 2011 and Topolytics eventually followed. Along the way I co-founded Totseat, a market leading baby product and created Moving Conversation, a live debate format with film clips, that was included in the both the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the main Edinburgh Festival (in different years!).
What is Topolytics?
Topolytics is a smart grid for waste. It uses mapping, big data, and analytics to expose the generation, movement and fate of commercial and industrial waste. Our ‘WasteMap’ data platform is used by multinational enterprises and their waste contractors to make better commercial, environmental, and investment decisions about this material.
Waste is wasteful, that’s what I have to tell people when they wrongly think that waste management companies are well-oiled machines. What do you think are the main reasons the industry is not operating at full efficiency?
The industry is quite traditional and has been managing waste in the same way for many years. It has been developed around a linear model, where waste is thrown into a hole in the ground. It is also not a greatly transparent nor data-driven industry. At the same time, our attitudes to waste are quite traditional – it’s only waste – so out of sight, out of mind has prevailed. Also – it is not ‘sexy’ – indeed, someone asked me recently if I met my wife before or after I started working in the waste industry!
All this is starting to change. As we now see the rising cost and shortage of raw materials and the environmental problems with waste, the industry is having to respond and move towards a more circular model, where waste is designed out or maintained at its highest utility. This is challenging traditional business models but is creating opportunities for new technologies, for example, the growing use of ‘internet of bins’ systems.
China, China, China. Everyone is talking about the plastics ban. I’m thinking there must be some way that your software can help businesses that are in a waste crisis. Am I right?
It’s all about geography. We are injecting ‘location intelligence’ into the global waste industry because we are dealing with a complex system of materials movements, which may be local, national and international. The China ban is leading to recycling capacity constraints, so if new capacity is to be created, where should it go and what should it best do? As we see more waste processing moving to a ‘distributed’ model, similar to energy generation, it will need a digital smart grid to make this new system of waste movements work more efficiently – this is what Topolytics is doing.
Waste is so valuable, but culturally I think people refuse to believe it. I’m sure you are constantly trying to educate people around you. How do you go about shifting perspectives on waste?
A brilliant way to shift perspectives is to show them what happens to their waste, then point out that they are paying to have it taken away, and then someone else is making money from it. This tends to concentrate the mind. We have also built a simple diagnostic tool that shows companies the difference between how much they pay for waste management and how much this material is worth. In a commercial and industrial context, at least this arms decision makers with high-quality data on which they can construct new models and approaches to managing and measuring this material – justifying any required investment. Also, waste is such an emotive subject at the moment that we are seeing a real hunger to change behaviours and processes.
Wastetech, I love this word. Why has it taken so long for the waste industry to catch up to technological advances?
I do too. Some people also call it ‘smart waste’. The waste industry is quite traditional and the infrastructure has been developed over many years to serve a certain way of doing things. Hence, I think the industry is trying to find ways to adopt and use technology while still making money. Waste is like many other industries that are trying to respond to Industry 4.0, where the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Robotics and Machine Learning can disrupt, but also offer huge opportunities. Topolytics is seen as being one of the companies globally leading this charge.
Does Topolytics operate just on a national level, or could I track, say, a container of PP Reels going from the UK to Taiwan? Is there a physical tracker, or is it connected to audit trails?
Our view is that there is no single source of the truth on waste. You have to look at it from a number of different angles and work with different data inputs to track or verify. We start by working with the ‘waste producer’ to interrogate their data. There is certainly a sensor angle – we have worked with many such hardware and systems vendors – to track in real time. Vehicles also have sensors of course – but ultimately, most waste is still not sensed in this way. Other technologies such as blockchain can be used to provide transparency through the value chain – but there are still challenges when applying it to physical materials. We are also generating other layers of data from other sources that we can use for corroboration and quality checking.
Ok, let’s pretend I’m a small waste management company and my data collection is all paper-based and messy. What do you do to help me? Walk me through it, Michael.
We are well used to messy data – in spreadsheets for example. We can bring this to life to improve customer engagement – particularly where there are questions about what happens to waste and the billing costs. We can also take data from waste management software packages that are used to log transactions and generate bills. We are about visualising and analysing this data within WasteMap and helping them report and make better commercial and environmental decisions. For example, recyclers use WasteMap to identify sources of feedstock and plan their sales and commercial activity accordingly.
What’s the difference between WasteMap and WasteTrack? Which is best suited to whom?
They are linked. WasteMap is the core data management and analytics platform. WasteTrack feeds into this if we are working with data from sensors and other sources to track in real time or generate a higher level of assurance about what happens to certain wastes.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The global waste management industry is big and valuable. Even as we move to drive waste out of commercial and consumer systems, the need for waste management remains. However, it will have to be a new kind of waste management that embraces new technologies and new business models. I am therefore confident that the old saying ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’ will be as true in the 21st Century as it was in the 19th.
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