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Tackling waste with smart data is key

A number of seemingly unrelated events and situations in recent days have driven home to me the need for more and better data. In the November issue of MRW, our profile of Paul Richardson, the managing director of specialist services at DHL Supply Chain, was dominated by the need for data – something he said would be the most valuable commodity of the future.

The “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is a regular cry from those in the sector, although the Eunomia founder Dominic Hogg objects to it in the December issue out this month. He is not countering the need for data – rather he is challenging the idea that management is impossible without decent data. It’s a decent point: there is so little of the stuff about that we’d all be stuck on our tracks if we took it too literally. He reckons, apart from material collected by local authorities, that waste data in the UK is of ‘terrible’ quality.

Hogg has been commenting for MRW on landfill data and the discrepancy between totals reported by the Environment Agency and HMRC. At the start of the decade, their totals were fairly similar. In recent years, they have stretched to being more than 12 million tonnes apart. Hogg’s analysis and possible explanation for the trend makes interesting reading – but you’ll have to wait for it. A conclusion is a tweaking of Richardson’s truism: ”You can manage what isn’t measured but probably can’t manage it as well as you would like.”

Data also featured strongly at the 10th birthday bash for the Resource Futures consultancy with new chief executive Sam Reeve looking to the next decade. He urged the sector to collaborate more on the collection and use of data to build a ‘flow map’ of secondary materials in the UK. Without one, he argued, the waste sector would be unable to sufficiently manage, use and dispose of resources.

Reeve used food as an example. New technology – the Internet of Things - would make it possible to monitor what was being bought, conditions in the fridge and the recipes that are being planned. Businesses would also monitor what waste was being disposed of and when. All this information could support production and manufacturing needs, improve retail logistics and better target the collection and treatment of secondary materials.

And food was always going to be core to the latest hearing of the environment and rural affairs select committee, with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall taking a break from his twin role as a chef and a broadcaster to discuss food waste. He was joined by environmental campaign group Feedback founder Tristram Stuart, and they formed a formidable duo arguing for mandatory food waste reduction targets and “a bad cop” approach to the supermarkets’ management of their supply chains.

Data, as ever, was key. The presenter of Hugh’s War on Waste was full of praise for the rigour of “ground-breaking” research on household food from WRAP which has led many to believe that it accounts for half of all food waste. But how can we be sure, he argued, when no such data existed in the catering, retail or manufacturing sectors? Stuart advocated the good cop (voluntary agreements like the Courtauld Commitment), bad cop approach to produce a transparent and shared set of data around food waste in the supply chain.

Transparency is key because, for many in our sector, possession of the right data gives a competitive advantage. Stuart’s argument was that if data was shared, no-one would have that edge and everyone can learn together to stem the huge loss of valuable foodstuffs.

These last words may read rather idealistically but it is part of a growing need for more and smarter data.

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