The movement of waste across borders is typically bureaucratic and paper-based. In a digital world, here at least, the fax machine remains an important tool. That means inefficiencies, errors and lack of transparency, all of which open up risks that legislation will be avoided.

There have been previous attempts to apply technology to the problem. These have typically focused on building centralised systems to link the different participants but such efforts have failed. The scale is reflected in the fact that there are more than 200,000 waste movements per year across the Dutch border alone.

Now, a pilot is under way which seeks to harness a decentralised approach using blockchain technology. Led by the Dutch government’s Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT), the results to date look promising.

The Problem

A study began a couple of years ago to consider how to address the inefficiencies of cross-border waste movements. Under European legislation, a waste producer needs to gain a permit, send prior notifications ahead of every shipment and notify all authorities. So if, for instance, a shipment is to be sent from the Netherlands to Italy, German and Austrian authorities also need to be notified.

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The distripark Waalhaven area of Port of Rotterdam

When the shipment has arrived at the disposal point, all authorities need to be notified once more, so too when disposal has taken place. Elliot Donata, senior adviser at the ILT, explains that each authority and company tends to have its own systems, some use portals, others emails, others fax. This typically creates a race to the bottom, as it is easier to send a fax than log in to each system.

The Pilot

Following the study, a pilot started with a couple of companies and the relevant authorities for the movement of hazardous waste between the Port of Rotterdam and Belgium, involving the latter’s Flemish waste authority, OVAM. The pilot has gone through a couple of iterations, says Donata, with some refinements after the initial trials.

One company involved is listed waste specialist, Renewi. It has 6000+ employees and 174 operating sites across Europe. It was was created in 2017, following the merger of Shanks Group plc with Van Gansewinkel Groep BV. The other company is Dutch residual waste specialist, AVR.

The technology partner is BlockLab, established in September 2017 by the Port of Rotterdam Authority and the Municipality of Rotterdam. This interesting entity is looking to apply blockchain to energy transition, as the sector shifts towards decentralised power networks; cargo flows; and port logistics, including stock financing, with a number of projects under way.

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One of Renewi’s operation sites

For the ILT’s waste project, the decision was made at the outset that the centralised system approach had failed and whatever solution was developed would need to work with all of the players’ decentralised systems. This pointed towards using blockchain, which could provide a tamper-proof way of moving the data in a secure format.

“We are very happy with the results until now,” says Donata, “although we are still concluding the pilot.” It has brought reduced errors and better transparency, with the data on the blockchain constituting a single source of the truth.

The intention is to complete the pilot in the summer, at which point there will be a discussion about next steps. Possible broadening could include addressing identity management, in other words, who is entering the data. If there is wider uptake, then there would also be a need to address governance, he says.

Whatever happens, this pilot is expected to be only the beginning. Donata concludes: “We are very open in this project, it is very new. We would like to have new endeavours in ILT and also work with other governments – we are very open to sharing knowledge.”