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Eyes in the sky are watching criminals

Mat Crocker

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.

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