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Emerging digital platforms force waste management rethink

Photo: Erik Ottoson Trovalla / Nordiska museet
Published Mar 22, 2023

Crowd-sourced waste disposal services push the legal and ethical boundaries on who should take care of our waste.

Emerging digital platforms force municipals to review their monopoly on waste management routines. This has not only legal ramifications, but also ethical ones, argues a study published ahead of the 2023 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

The paper is written by KTH researcher Rob Comber  in collaboration with Chiara Rossitto at Stockholm University.

Waste management or advertisement?

Comber and Rossitto studied a legal case between Stockholm Municipality and Tiptapp, a digital platform that matches workers with private individuals who need to get rid of household waste.

The case, which started in 2017, focused on interpreting local and national waste laws.

Tiptapp was originally banned from continuing its business based on a perceived danger of transferring waste from one private individual to another. The company claimed its practice is not about waste disposal but selling advertisements, specifically facilitating arrangements between private individuals and on-demand workers. Stockholm municipality also claimed that it cannot be left to individual carriers to ensure the waste is removed safely.

After five years of appeals and counter-appeals, the ban was overturned, and the case closed.

Increasing power

Comber and Rossitto believe the emergence of Tiptapp raises several questions about technology’s role in sustainable Human Computer Interactions (HCI).

“This case demonstrates how digital platforms not only compete but also create new markets, norms and behaviours about how we deal with waste,” says Rob Comber.

Enabling two individuals to mediate waste transport reshapes several dimensions of current waste management systems.

“It forces us to review how we understand concepts like responsibilities and monopolies within relatively well-established public services such as waste management,” adds Chiara Rossitto.

The high number of Tiptapp users has given the platform institutional power, similar to that of Airbnb, which has influenced the deregulation of short-term rentals in several countries.

Evades regulations

But with increasing influence comes an equal amount of responsibility. Comber and Rossitto warn that technology, in its globalising form, can erode, manipulate and evade important regulations associated with sustainability.

HCI researchers must increasingly keep this in mind, the authors conclude.

“We urge researchers in this field to begin now – if they have not already done so – to understand the role legal context of technological systems for a more sustainable living.”

Watch interview with Rob Comber explaining the emergence of digital platforms and waste management:

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Photo: Erik Ottoson Trovalla / Nordiska museet

Emerging digital platforms force waste management rethink

Crowd-sourced waste disposal services push the legal and ethical boundaries on who should take care of our waste.

Read the article