Are blockchains the solution to illegal waste dumping?

Recycling has a traceability problem—new technology can help | By Ethan Thompson

Are blockchains the solution to illegal waste dumping?
Photo by David Hofmann / Unsplash

For many people, any awareness of blockchain technology is tied to cryptocurrency, and even then, the exact nature of that link is usually very hazy.

But blockchains are not intrinsically linked to crypto and may actually offer a way forward in how we deal with one of the key environmental issues of our time – recycling.

According to, a blockchain is a distributed database or ledger shared among a computer network’s nodes. They 'can be used to make data in any industry immutable—the term used to describe the inability to be altered’.

The need to recycle more of our waste materials has long been understood by consumers. In the UK, local councils are obliged to collect these under the 2003 Household Waste Recycling Act. Schools work hard to turn their pupils into conscientious recyclers. Single-use plastics are being phased out. More people than ever are doing their best to play a bigger part in recycling.

And yet, as The Guardian first reported in 2021, a huge and highly lucrative illegal trade has sprung up around our increased desire to recycle, and too much of the waste we think is being disposed of safely and ethically is in reality being dumped, both in the UK and abroad.

An inquiry by the National Audit Office  found that: “The financial incentive for companies to fraudulently claim they have recycled plastic packaging is higher than for any other material.”

So, what role can blockchain technology play in tackling this ‘illegal waste-dumping mafia’?

London-based Circulor is using the technology to increase the traceability of waste, including materials gathered in mining, from construction processes or passing through the recycling sector. 

As its website explains: ‘Without knowing the provenance of goods or materials, it is difficult to ensure social and environmental standards are effectively applied across complex and global supply chains. 

‘Our traceability products track the origin of raw materials and the actual flow of materials through the production processes and transformations they undergo within manufacturing and recycling supply chains.’

Their data can be used to demonstrate that recycling or disposal processes are conducted responsibly. If irresponsible action is suspected this data can be used to investigate supply chain participants and identify any potential misconduct.

This is done by identifying anomalies and deviations across the recycling supply chain and flagging the anomaly to responsible organisations and downstream participants.

Blockchains make waste traceability easy and accessible, with QR code technology and the use of tags meaning batches of recyclable content can be tracked at every stage of the recycling or disposal process. 

Other companies such as Plastic Bank are utilising blockchain technology in tandem with a reward system to support developing countries through recycling. 

Advocating ‘social recycling’, the company encourages community members to actively participate in waste collection by providing them with access to waste-tracking information powered by a blockchain. The company can then reward exchanged plastic waste with currency that can be used at local Plastic Bank branches for bonuses that provide basic family necessities, such as groceries, cooking fuel, school tuition and health insurance. 

According to its website, Plastic Bank has 566 recycling communities around the world that have been responsible for the ethical recycling of 114,475,611kg of plastic waste.

Blockchains can never be the sole solution to an issue as big as illegal waste dumping—but they can contribute to recycling traceability and accountability. 

Written by Ethan Thompson