Interview: Dan Botterill of Ditto Sustainability on how technology could solve our waste woes

Dan Botterill is CEO of AI company Ditto Sustainability. He spoke to Environment Journal about ‘plastic pledges’, why environmental policy needs to be more positive and how data could be the key to our waste woes.

Many businesses are now making ‘plastic pledges’ – are companies now taking this issue seriously or might it be a fad?

It would be easy to look at this as a fad, however, we can now see in the everyday lives of consumers how much of an impact this issue is having on our purchasing habits. If you were to take a trip down to your local supermarket, you will now be encouraged or even mandated to use a biodegradable or compostable bag. This is just one example of many that shows how major companies, especially from within the retail industry, are approaching this issue and are now implementing strategies around tackling the global plastic issue.

It is still, however, early days and it is likely to be several years before we see widespread change. But on the upside, we are seeing considerable investment in the development of substitutes to single-use plastic, and this is something we welcome.

The UK sends much of its waste abroad to developing countries. What responsibility do we have to the people who live in these countries and how do we ensure sure this waste isn’t just dumped in the sea?

This is an issue that many professionals within the waste and sustainability industries have been aware of for a while but has only come to the concern of the media and public in recent times.

Quite understandably as consumers or business, we assume that if we segregate our waste for recycling, this will then be taken away and actually recycled. However, the reality is that as a country we export a lot of waste and recyclables to developing countries and these materials are often of such poor quality they cannot actually be recycled.  We are simply deferring our waste problem to someone else.

This isn’t a responsible way for us as a country to deal with our waste. We (Government, consumers and business) need to look for a new self-sufficient way to manage waste moving forward. Pressure needs to be put on local authorities, government and waste contractors to provide more information on the traceability of our waste.

Why haven’t household recycling rates grown over the past decade?

At present, it is very difficult to tell how much of our waste is actually recycled. In many instances, much of the waste we believe is being taken away to be recycled isn’t dealt with properly, due to wider issues of material quality, traceability and accountability. There has also been an historic position by the Government to overstate our performance when it comes to recycling, which is very misleading for the public.

As a result, we need to move away from this approach of “recycling at all costs”, and instead look to change our stance to one that focuses on reuse and managing our waste in a more circular, sustainable way.

You have worked with NHS Scotland – what methods are they using to cut down on waste?

We have been working with NHS Scotland for a number of years now – the majority of this work has focused on looking to better understand their waste, which has involved quite extensive data collection and analysis; examining how waste is produced and the final destinations. The information can then be used to inform decisions on what processes can be changed in order to manage waste more effectively.

Also, more recently, our Ditto Sustainability AI platform has been chosen for the CivTech Challenge 6, which looked to find an efficient data system to monitor NHS resources. NHS Scotland buys over £2bn worth of goods and services each year, although it is estimated that over 50% of all items purchased may be suitable for remanufacturing.

Our aim is to utilise the best available technologies and in particular AI to scale, automate and democratise the knowledge that decision makers need to prevent waste and drive efficiency within NHS Scotland. This project is just getting underway, but we are excited about the potential it has.

How can technology help businesses cut down on waste?

As with NHS Scotland, the first issue to resolve in this area is having a better understanding of your waste, where it comes from and where it goes. Only when you have this information can you work out the best way to cut it down. One of the best ways to do this is through collecting data and organising it in a manageable way.

From there, education is the next big step for companies to effectively cut down their waste. Businesses are run by people, so getting employees to change their mindset towards waste prevention – as opposed to just recycling – is likely to have a major impact on businesses’ waste output. One way that this can be done, utilising technology, is through online learning and training.

What changes to environmental law would you like to see to encourage businesses to adopt more sustainable practices?

We’re starting to see the Government move in the right direction in this space, recently implementing new laws that place more responsibility on manufacturers to pay their fair share of the downstream recycling and waste management costs.

However, at present, a lot of the policy in this area is quite negative – the onus is often on paying for pollution and clean up, rather than encouraging improvement and waste reduction. This requires a shift in mindset from policymakers towards improving the environment, rather than how we stop it from getting worse.

What was your reaction to the Government’s Waste Strategy that was published before Christmas?

The strategy seems to be pointing us in the right direction in terms of how we think about and approach waste. Through strategies such as these, we are really starting to see progress in the way we look at a circular economy.

The strategy focuses a great deal on prevention, education, transparency and traceability around our waste – all of which we have been advocating in the industry for many years now. The data and digital infrastructure driven approach to waste and resource management is likely to develop now in the coming years on the back of this strategy.

Thomas Barrett

Thomas Barrett

Journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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