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How Digital Transformation Impacts Recycling Programs

City recycling programs need to accelerate their rate of digital transformation. In this article we explore what it is, how it can positively impact local municipal programs, and what the experts have to say about how it’s already proving to be a vital step in ensuring environmental sustainability.




Just 9 years ago, a group of MIT thinkers got together and announced that digital transformation was what the world needed to step into the current age of technological progress.


Back then, it was defined as the strategic adoption of relevant technology, in order to impact profound change. In other words, organizations need to look at investing in technologies, models and processes that drive new value in the current digital economy.


Governments have been notoriously slow at digital transformation, especially when it comes to implementing new ways to manage existing systems. This is something that is changing – and at a quicker pace now that severe repercussions like COVID-19 have emerged in society.

For local recycling programs, increased digital transformation means a chance to iron out many of the inefficiencies that are keeping recycling rates from increasing, and wish-cycling from decreasing in the new COVID-19 reality.

Let’s consider this from 3 angles – how a lack of digital transformation has negatively impacted our programs, why accelerating adoption is so important right now – and how technology could improve the systems that are currently in use across North America.

When There is No Digital Transformation

Fact: Recycling programs are failing or struggling to stay afloat. Digital transformation is not just a priority but a necessity.


Kevin Flynn, Global Vice President of Operations at Terracycle shared this with us:

“Even before the virus, New Jersey’s recycling programs were declining as a result of China’s ban on imported exotic plastics. Now, COVID-related health and budget concerns have introduced more uncertainty. If industry-leaders had established improved digital chain of custody and supply chain management tools before the pandemic, it would have meant increased visibility and confidence when recyclers needed them most.”

Clearly, confusion and the inability to quickly rollout solutions was the result of outdated processes stacked against the swift and disruptive upheaval of a global pandemic.

Olivia Wilson, the Outreach Manager at also weighed in:

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the digital transformation in nearly all aspects of life: the way we shop; how we work; how we receive medical care; and even how we communicate with loved ones. Most of these shifts were already occurring prior to COVID and will continue well after the crisis passes. The waste and recycling management industry’s overall lack of digital transformation is particularly glaring in this context, especially as more and more waste originates from the home. Companies will either need to catch up or move out of the way for others.”

The negative impact here is how residents were kept at home, without clarification, connection, or instruction from their local recycling services on what to do and how to do it.

Despite this, residents in many parts of the continent increased their recycling efforts. It stands to reason that with some guidance this could have been exponentially improved, and the new flood of plastic waste significantly reduced in a number of municipalities.

The Most Important Reason to Accelerate Adoption

Fact: City Planners should accelerate their rate of digital adoption, so that when local, national, or global disruption takes place there are systems to manage it.


Kevin Flynn from Terracycle says, “People are more concerned than ever about where their waste ends up and if it actually gets recycled. Improved chain of custody and supply chain management tools and best practices are becoming increasingly relevant for recyclers.”

So, residents need to be informed, updated, and motivated to recycle – especially during times of disruption. (Recycle Coach has tools to help with that)

Olivia Wilson from adds, “As with all technological advances, cities and towns tend to either pioneer or fall way behind. There is very little middle ground. The choices that City Planners make now set their cities’ trajectories for years to come. Forward-thinking municipal leaders should prioritize Smart Waste and Recycling in the same way they do electricity, connectivity, transportation, and alternative energy.”

This is a matter of either you keep up or you don’t. The consequences of falling behind are severe – ever-increasing landfills, more greenhouse gasses, greater pollution levels, local animals going extinct and illness incidence on the rise. These consequences will be seen on a municipal level first.

When Digital Transformation is a Priority

Fact: Municipalities need to join forces with private companies in order to embrace digital transformation and improve the systems that are failing. Technology makes the world greener!

Terracycle’s Kevin Flynn told us how improved systems are already tackling the plastics crisis:

“Our supply chain management tools helped us create a massive supply chain for plastics collected from waterways and aided us in supporting life cycle analyses for our recycling programs. Utilizing standards traditionally used in supply chain management versus typical waste management standards allows TerraCycle’s partners to audit the recycling supply chain with increased visibility and confidence.”

Here, the flow of recycled goods and services aids in the on-demand collection of plastic pollution in public waterways in support of a supply chain. By embracing a different model, TerraCycle manages to reduce the negative impact of waste on the environment.

Image_4_Recycling_Bins’s Olivia Wilson shared a story with us on how technology can positively impact recycling programs:

“In 2018 and 2019, the Zero Waste & Litter Director wanted to build on the success of the zero-waste Philly marathon by creating and rewarding a group of community members who would help out at zero-waste events throughout the city. Combining the Philadelphia Recycling Rewards program and the Waste Watchers program, this interdepartmental collaboration paved the way for Philacycle, a desktop and mobile experience that offered tiered memberships, incentivized training, exclusive rewards, and the ability to check-in at events to earn points for helping to make sure that as many materials were  being diverted from landfills as possible. This was a great extension to the existing loyalty program, and leveraging GPS/mobile technology made it easier for the city to find and retain individuals who were motivated to support the city’s sustainability initiatives.”

The Philacycle Captains & Volunteers Program shows how technology can facilitate success – in connecting partners, in easier collaboration across teams, in leveraging mobile gamification and geolocation technology, and in reaching and retaining participants.

These experts have shown two ways that digital transformation can improve municipality recycling programs. From better resource management and recycling life cycle operations, to enhanced collaboration and engagement – programs are more effective when the right tools are utilized.

And this is really the tip of the melting iceberg!

Smart technology will help recycling programs become more automated, intuitive, and responsive to crisis situations. Aligning business and environmental goals must be a top priority for City Planners in the months to come.

At Recycle Coach we urge the leadership of all municipal recycling programs to consider what could be, what must be and to take charge in delivering a safer, healthier, greener future for all of us.

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