The awareness that Industry 4.0 is going to change the way how waste and recycling companies operate, has grown significantly. That is clear for AMCS CMO Mark Abbas who participated in a panel discussion during the virtual tradeshow eREC. “Over the last few years there has been a change within the market resulting in a big catchup in the industry at present. For instance, we have seen this with the rise of predictive analytics and real-time dispatching of pickups based on predicting filling grades of containers. Even though it is still in an early stage, companies are also embracing innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning powered technologies for instance to grade recycling material.”
In an interview, he foresees the future of the waste and recycling industry in the next ten years. Additionally, Mark Abbas also highlights, among other things, the opportunities Industry 4.0 is providing the industry to face the challenges arising from the transformation to a circular economy. Accordingly, also the other participants in the eREC panel discussion Tim Rotheray (Viridor) Professor Edward Kosior (Nextek), Nick Cliffe (Innovate UK) and John Shegerian (ERI) share their vision.
Mark Abbas, AMCS: “Improve resource productivity to target EU goals”
Recent EU proposals, was one of the topics Abbas touched during the eREC panel discussion "aiming to boost recycling targets, create jobs in green industries and tackle food waste in order to transform the current linear economy into a circular economy and promote sustainable growth. These proposals include recycling targets of 90% recycling for paper and 60% for packaging made of plastic by 2025 and 90% recycling of all packaging consisting of iron, aluminium or glass. According to the proposals, recyclable waste would be banned from landfills by 2025 like plastics, metals, glass, paper, cardboard and biodegradable waste. This ban is likely to also cover all recoverable municipal waste by 2030. Member states will be set a 30% resource efficiency target by 2030, linked to raw material consumption and gross domestic product (GDP). To achieve these goals, we will need to change consumer behaviour and in this light the producer responsibility will need to be looked at. Since this means the end-to-end process has to be made profitable, there is more pressure on recycling techniques, material grading etc. As a result, we will see more very specialised recycling techniques and smaller plants popping up that use very advanced technologies to recycle and upcycle collected disposables into raw materials again. To encourage and improve resource productivity, the focus lies on those materials promising the most economical and environmental benefit. This will change our sector in a way we’ve never seen before bringing the next-generation technologies from the future to the here and now, to our everyday businesses.”
Tim Rotheray, Viridor: “Making consumers lives as easy as possible”
Recycling contributing to a circular economy was a recurring topic during the eREC panel discussion. Tim Rotheray, Director of Innovation and Regulations at Viridor, mentioned making consumers lives as easy as possible as a precondition for recycling. “Therefore, the consumer finds it the easiest to put the material in the in the right place to recycle it. This ensures us that there's a purity of material that comes through because the more contaminated material is, the more expensive it is to process”. According to him, standardization of materials also increases recycling in the near future. “We will see a smaller number of packaging types which will make separation easier and at the end drive down cost.”
Professor Edward Kosior, Nextek Ltd: “Circular design not in full swing yet”
Professor Edward Kosior, Managing Director of Nextek Ltd said to expect an important shift in the coming 10 years. “Manufacturers will make their packaging recyclable too and put it back into the loop again after use”. According to him at the moment that loop is missing because work on a circular design is not in full swing yet. However when it does “then recycling will really work and that will make the circular economy really work.” All participants in the eREC panel discussion agreed on the fact that for a circular economy groundbreaking changes are needed. This requires more than just recycling. “After this you’ve got to make products from the recovered materials and sell them into a market.” That is where he thinks recycling has a big challenge of complexity. “There are lots of things that never been have been designed to be recycled before.”
Nick Cliffe, Innovate UK: “Digital twinning optimises business”
Nick Cliffe, Head of Advanced Materials at Innovate UK, additionally, also referred to the design and development of the next generation of recycling plants. “For instance, digital twinning will wholly integrate digital models of recycling processes which are getting increasingly complex. This allows the process and the procedures and the functionality and ultimately the profitability of these businesses to be optimised. But the scale of the challenge that we're facing and the speed at which we have to move means that no one individual organisation is going to be big enough to solve this on their own. We have to work collaboratively right across the supply chain to create the really fully recyclable minimum impact products that we need right from their conception all the way through to the end of their life.”
John Shegerian, ERI: “Artificial intelligence and robotics to responsibly recycle”
To be able to recycle even more products future technologies will play an important role, this became clear from the comment of John Shegerian, Executive Chairman ERI Direct. “When we got in this business in 2002 e-waste was the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world, in 2020 it still is. One of the reasons is the internet of things. After GDPR passed in the EU in May of 2018 and then coming to America, privacy is pushing more electronics into the hands of responsible recyclers. Companies like ERI are employing and deploying artificial intelligence and robotics to responsibly recycle all of these products. We were the first to put robots into our facilities and it's working tremendously. Those that are willing to adopt and adapt and be flexible will continue to thrive”, according to Shegerian. At the same time by recycling e-waste with innovative technologies they contribute to a circular economy.”
Being agile to adopt new technologies and to embed Industry 4.0 technology
What challenges comes with adopting technologies as part of Industry 4.0?, is the obvious question for Mark Abbas to answer. “Smaller to mid-sized companies are often managed using manual and paper processes. Mainly because of this, the technical foundation of many companies is still based on outdated in-house developed software, lots of spreadsheets, siloed systems poorly integrated or not integrated at all. Being agile to adopt new technologies and to embed Industry 4.0 technology in the business processes is, therefore, for many of the established companies still a challenge. There is also another factor in play. All Industry 4.0 technologies have to work seamlessly together to support business processes. The use of state-of-the-art artificial intelligence technologies, for instance to grade material, requires an even more innovative ERP system. And that is a bottleneck. An outdated ERP system cannot consume that information and turn it into a proper invoice with complex pricing based on the material composition.”
What factors are positively influencing the upcoming Industry 4.0?
“The arising awareness and interest of advanced technologies are driven by an increasingly competitive landscape and the consolidation wave that comes with that", Abbas says. "This major development in the global waste and recycling industry coerces agility and efficiency with a stronger need to understand data and to make real-time decisions. This is an important prerequisite for companies enabling to react in near real-time to market changes and industry developments to strengthen the competitive edge and to remain one of the frontrunners in their fields. Also, the global waste and recycling industry is going through a massive transition from a linear to a circular economy. This means, different business models, more logistical challenges, challenges around matching supply and demand. The ability to make a profit in the new value chain will definitely influence technology adoption.”
Which opportunities and changes arise for the industry?
Abbas foresees a lot of opportunities for companies who are able to successfully transform from an operator in the linear economy to one in the circular economy. "If they embrace a solid technology platform as a foundation to build an agile business that can adopt new technologies rapidly. To stay competitive, decisions need to be made based on more data, in less time. Also, one thing is also sure, the pace of change will continue to increase. In other words: if you are not on the bus on time, you have to face the reality that you are soon overtaken by a stronger market player who have established an agile business model and is leveraging Big Data, the Internet of Things, machine learning and artificial intelligence.”
How important is the cloud in this respect?
“A lot of companies, not the say most of them, do understand the necessity that moving to the cloud is an important precondition to establish agility and successfully adopt new technologies," according to Abbas. "For instance, customers in France, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States have made it very clear that they would only invest in cloud solutions moving forward. This concerns a mix of small and medium-sized companies, large enterprise recyclers and waste hauliers. This goes hand in hand with the awareness that companies need to take a holistic and process centred approach and not a technology-focused approach. Because that will lead to challenges integrating the technology in companies business processes."