A news item caught my attention recently. The headline read: ‘Man who dumped chemical barrels caught out by GPS in hire van’.
The Environment Agency (EA) had utilised data that had been recorded by the rental van’s GPS to establish where the vehicle had been, and also made use of CCTV images which showed the barrels being dumped.
The EA officers involved deserve congratulations for their creativity and tenacity to achieve a successful prosecution. The approach does raise the question of how a more connected society, and the various streams of data and information, could help to make the movements of waste more transparent and thereby cut the risk of the wrong waste ending up in the wrong place.
It is my view that no single technology or solution is a ‘silver bullet’ to solving waste crime.
But, in combination, they could make the task easier for producers of waste and the legitimate waste industry to comply with their Duty of Care. And, as the news story identified, it would give greater opportunity for the regulators to identify breaches and react effectively and quickly.
Remote technology is already being used to help regulate other industries such as marine fisheries, logging and groundwater abstraction.
When I start to think about the issues that currently face the waste and resource sector, and then consider the opportunities that GPS tracking of individual waste items or vehicles, along with Earth observation data from satellites, it becomes an interesting mix of possibilities to help get more of the right waste to the right place.
The space industry has already begun to consider this opportunity. The entire Earth landmass is now imaged every day by more than 500 instruments that are in orbit – meaning that the shelf-life of an image is now 24 hours.
Harnessing this invisible army of overhead observation platforms to track and monitor waste activities is now a realistic possibility.
A recent workshop in Brussels examined the potential of identifying illegal unknown waste sites as well as monitoring known sites for compliance. The data could provide a rich source of potential evidence to support the enforcement of environmental law.
It is not a question of if surveillance and tracking technologies will be utilised to monitor the waste sector, but when.
Mat Crocker is an independent consultant and former deputy director at the Environment Agency.