Colm Mc Caffrey wants save the environment from mobile phone waste

Research Pitching Competition 2019 finalist Colm Mc Caffrey from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland wants to combine blockchain technology, biodegradable technology and e-waste management to make the recycling of mobile phones smarter.


What is the challenge you are trying to solve with this idea?

Electronic waste is an environmental disaster that is increasing exponentially in the last two decades. In the next two decades, as the developing countries reach technological maturity, the problem is set to further intensify. While it is technologically feasible to recycle mobile phones, the process is complex and expensive. The recoverable value is less than the cost of recycling. There is no incentive for manufacturers to encourage recycling of mobile phones. This complex issue demands a solution that is not just technical but also societal. 

If you were to win the €100K Skolar Award, what would you do?

I would first gather all the knowledge together to understand the different pain points of the manufacturers, consumers and decision-makers. I would then gather the best scientific knowledge on blockchain technology and see how we can model a smart contract between these different stakeholders and test it on a small scale. Eventually, within the next two years, I would want to pitch a viable, disruptive “new e-waste management system” to Finland's sitting government and motivate them to make Finland a global pioneer in circular economic reform.

How do you feel about pitching?

I have pitched before, at several challenge competitions. In fact, this idea was initiated in a hackathon where I and my team pitched it to others. I have learned that when pitching, it is crucial to focus more on the audience than yourself. To make them understand and feel the importance of the idea is what matters. I have never pitched on such a big stage as Slush, I look forward to the experience. This competition also allows me to pitch an idea that can have big societal and systemic impact so it is a chance for me to do something out of my ordinary life. 

What motivates you as a researcher?

I just want to do new and cool stuff, to disrupt the status quo and to advance our knowledge and capabilities. I am very interested in solving current challenges and those of the next generation. I feel that as a researcher I can do exactly that. 

Colm’s wild idea: 

E-waste is a disaster for our planet. The mobile phone industry is an good example, where device lifetimes are 1-2 years. While it is technologically feasible to recycle mobile phones, the process is complex and expensive such that the recoverable value is less than the cost of recycling. Currently the problem is addressed by including a recycling fee to the producer of the device. However, there is currently no measure to actually ensure, or even encourage the recycling of the phone.

The core idea relates to the application of blockchain technology to create a smart contract between the phone manufacturer, the consumer and the recycling operators. The recycling fee would be securely and transparently attached to the device (MAC or IMEI). The fee could only be unlocked when the phone physically arrives to an approved recycling operator. For the recycler then value of recycling the phone will include the material side streams combined with the recycling fee.

In addition, the recycling fee can be used to encourage the consumer to ensure the phone is give to an approved recycler at its end of life. Further, the system will be used to monitor the life time of the phone giving the potential to create incentives for manufacturers to make phones that are (i) long lasting and (ii) more easily recyclable. We can even increase the rebate as the lifetime increases

Currently there is only hell (landfill) for deadphones - help me to make a phone heaven not only possible but profitable.

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