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More Digital Tools = More Circular Economy? Our Learnings
July 07, 2022

The amount of waste we produce globally is continuing to grow at an alarming rate. We’ve all seen the shocking images of coastlines blanketed in garbage and turtles eating plastic bags. Clearly, we need all the help we can get to properly manage and reduce our waste.

That is why the traditionally analog waste collection services are increasingly turning to digital tools to help accelerate solutions. In a recent article, I explored some of the most promising solutions available and I asked you via a community poll where you see the most potential for impact on waste management through digital tools.

Our audience said that the two biggest areas of opportunity for digital are for monitoring and tracking, and for driving behavior change. Well guess what? We agree! Our two first tools target these exact areas.

This aligns with our on-the-ground learnings at Delterra where we have been working to help communities in the Global South make their waste management systems more effective, efficient and economically sustainable.

In this article, I will share two practical case studies – from Delterra’s work with communities in Indonesia and Argentina – on how we’ve used digital tools to improve waste management.

Solving for efficiency and adoption

My colleagues and I developed digital solutions to help us tackle two of the biggest challenges we face in our efforts to promote recycling in the communities we serve:

  • How do we quickly transform sorting centers to be more effective and financially self-sustainable? This question led to the creation of our Operations Platform (case study 1).
  • How do we drive household behavior change at scale? This question led to the creation of our WhatsApp AI Chatbot (case study 2).

I’ll start with the story of our Operations Platform, which is enabling new levels of transparency and tracking for our communities’ materials recovery facilities. Then I’ll share the story of our Chatbot, which is really emerging as a powerful driver of behavior change at scale.

 Case Study 1

Sorting centers adopt an operations platform to make their daily work easier and more effective

One of our first findings was that sorting centers in countries throughout the Global South often face data deficiencies. This makes many routine tasks needlessly complicated, like tracking waste volumes throughout the plant and keeping tabs on customer payment rates.

Sorting center managers in Indonesia told us that this causes uncollected fees and makes it hard to keep tabs on any waste reduction happening at the consumer level. It also hampers efforts to improve the flow of recycled materials to manufacturers willing to pay to repurpose them. Beyond this, centers across the Global South also tend to lack a system for operational data management, such as the ability to proactively identify maintenance issues or budget concerns.

We wanted to offer these centers a small tool with a big impact. We imagined a way to digitize and standardize their data in a simple turnkey solution. To do this, we partnered with a waste management company based in India named Bintix to re-design a tool they had built for sorting centers in India. Together, we customized it for our communities in both Indonesia and Argentina. And that’s how our Operations Platform was born.

What exactly does it do? It gives users a web and Android-based tool that digitizes and standardizes core operational data, making it much easier to manage expenses, track how much waste is being diverted from landfills or measure how much recyclable material is sold to aggregators. Among other things, this diversion data, which is broken down by routes, can then be used to measure how effective specific programs are, such as our behavior change interventions.

The Delterra Operations Platform also gives sorting center managers access to useful tools such as reporting dashboards whose rich insights help them make more informed decisions. Additionally, the platform incorporates automated processes with auto-billing, making missed payments a thing of the past. Reporting to funders and regulators also becomes intuitive and transparent. Above all, a standardized approach to measuring and tracking recyclable materials across sorting centers and regions means that a greater supply of materials can be processed.

I am delighted to share our exciting results from the implementation of our Operations Platform. It has gone live in eight sorting centers across Argentina and Indonesia, where it has already had significant positive impacts. Perhaps the most impactful result on a human level – we’ve seen as much as a 9X reduction in the time spent manually doing processes, such as reconciling cash payments and deposits at month-end, freeing up this time for staff to do other things.

The tool has also proved to have a massive financial impact, with users in Indonesia seeing payment collection rates increase from as low as 30%-40% to more than 80%.  This has a very real impact on the daily lives of the sorting center staff as well as the financial stability and sustainability of the center their community depends on.  Ultimately, these successes for the community translate into successes for the planet, with more waste being diverted from the environment and put back into productive use.

Case Study 2

Meet Ami: the chatbot enhancing community engagement 

In each of the communities where Delterra operates, we observed common pain points citizens encountered when dealing with the waste management system. For example, they often had to talk directly to collection truck drivers or try to get administrators on the phone to resolve issues around signing up as a new customer or getting clarity about pick-ups. They also typically dealt with an opaque payment system and lacked tools to educate household members on how to properly sort waste.

To address this, we built a customer-facing, AI-based chatbot on WhatsApp to provide a direct communication channel between the program and residents. We chose to use WhatsApp given its broad uptake as one of the most popular communications tools. Having a novel way for citizens to engage with their waste program providers in a way that didn’t exist in the past has proven popular. Residents use the chatbot to answer questions about waste sorting and collection schedules and it has also proven a cost-effect solution for troubleshooting, without being resource intensive for program administrators.

The chatbot has also shown its worth as an aid in prompting recycling behavior change, allowing program administrators to send reminders about source separation, such as digital nudges to remind residents which days to take out which streams for curbside collection. Administrators can then evaluate the effectiveness of these low-cost digital interventions.

Results from pilot groups indicate that customers who signed up to receive chatbot nudges had 5% better weekly sorting scores compared to control groups over a 6-month period. This was driven by the behavior change campaigns sent through the chatbot, with the improvements in waste separation helping sorting centers achieve better efficiency with incoming waste, ultimately leading to more sales of recyclable material. We believe the chatbot will also help citizens feel engaged and result in them having a more positive waste management experience.

The chatbot is currently available to 500+ households in Indonesia and another 500+ in Argentina, with 600+ customers across these two markets signing up to receive messages from the platform. Just like many of my Delterra colleagues, my McKinsey training has shown me the value of a test-learn-scale approach. Now that the chatbot has shown its potential, we are primed to move it to the scaling phase.

What’s next?

With the help of these digital tools, our waste management programs have produced early signs of meaningful impact. Despite the pandemic and related shutdowns in 2020-2021, our Argentina and Indonesia teams now provide recycling and waste management services to nearly 50,000 residents, employ 450+ affiliated waste workers, and have achieved recycling participation rates of up to 70% of households, which is higher than most cities globally.

In the coming year, we plan to launch additional digital solutions that can unlock further value and help our programs achieve greater scale. For example, we will address the challenge of material traceability in recycling, with the goal of mapping the entire journey and life cycle of recycled materials, in order to meet quality, ethical and environmental standards. To do so, we are working with a variety of partners to launch a comprehensive material traceability tool.

Through these experiences, I’ve become ever more convinced that digital technologies are absolutely key to scaling and improving the effectiveness of waste management programs. Municipalities and recycling programs still have significant room to enhance their operations and promote greater levels of recycling throughout communities. I look forward to what’s ahead. Please reach out to me if you have comments or suggestions for how Delterra can continue this work – I look forward to hearing from you!

This blog was written and contributed by:

Harry McGuire
Project Lead, Digital Innovations
Reach out to the author


With thanks to contributors:

Alina Gabdrakhmanova
Global Knowledge and Insights Manager
McKinsey & Co Fellow

Joe Zachariah
Former Director of Digital