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Ways Technology is Facilitating the Shift to a Circular Economy

The circular economy holds vast potential for businesses, helping them to add value, save money, connect with customers and stand out from the competition. For our first podcast in a new series exploring the role of technology in this new way of doing things, we chatted to Catherine Weetman, author of the award-winning book, A Circular Economy Handbook for Business and Supply Chains.

Catherine identifies four facets that outline how the circular economy is distinct from our current system.

  • The first is “from fast to slow”: be it fashion or furniture, the current trend is for quick, cheap, disposable products; whereas the circular model creates products that are durable, repairable and upgradable.
  • The second is “from ownership to sharing”: whether it’s cars, bikes, tools or even workspaces, circularity encourages sharing rather than owning products that we don’t need constant access to.
  • The third is “from wasting and discarding to recovering and regenerating”: recycling efficiently to recover value rather than sending things to landfill or the incinerator.
  • The final element that connects all of these is a focus on safe and sustainable materials, from the safety of people and nature at the point of extraction and processing, to the end product. “We shouldn't be putting toxins and poisons into the system at any stage,” says Catherine.

It’s not just about protecting people and the environment. Adopting a circular approach can bring huge wins for businesses, too. “Every time we use more water, more energy, more materials than we need to, every time we discard a repairable product, we're throwing money away,” says Catherine. As resources become more scarce and supply chains more fragile, being able to easily access and recover those resources is increasingly beneficial. This in turn leads to greater affordability for future customers, and fuels loyalty through a reputation of environmental stewardship and ethical business practices.

Here are some key examples of technologies that are driving forward the four aspects of a circular economy.

1. Fast to slow: Sensor technology and the Internet of Things

Sensor technology and the Internet of Things help us understand how something is performing. A famous example is Rolls Royce (“power by the hour”), which uses sensors to monitor how their aircraft engines perform in real time. Such data can demonstrate when certain parts are wearing quicker than expected and allows manufacturers to be proactive rather than reactive, saving time, money and resources. “Understanding which parts need servicing when can save the customer money and gives them more assurance in terms of reliability, and gets you as a manufacturer or service provider much closer to the customer and their needs,” says Catherine.

2. Sharing: Platforms that match supply and demand

In this arena, technology plays a key role in matching supply to demand. Rheaply, for instance, includes a kind of translation dictionary for the way different organisations catalogue their resources, equipment and consumables, so that assets can be shared efficiently between them. A software-powered materials exchange can then match supply and demand, thereby reducing waste, saving money for both buyer and seller (or lender and borrower) and generating additional value.

3. Recovering and regenerating waste: Machine learning and AI

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are integral to waste processing systems, streamlining recycling by recognising and separating different materials from mixed waste. “If you're able to separate each type of material, you've got much more chance of recovering it back into material for the same kind of product,” explains Catherine.

4. Safe and sustainable materials: Material passports

Currently it’s almost impossible to know where a product came from, what it’s made of, and the human and environmental exploitation involved in the process. According to Catherine, “Material passports will be transformational.” They can tell consumers what a product is made of and how all those materials can be fed back into a useful recycling stream once it’s no longer needed or functional. This is not only efficient, but also empowers the consumer in new and exciting ways.

It’s clear that technology plays an important role in the circular economy, yet circularity is, above all, a mindset. It’s about, in Catherine’s words, creating “a better world where there is enough for all of us, forever.” That’s why community, transparency and open source approaches matter as much as the tech itself. As we face unprecedented global challenges, the circular economy is bursting with opportunities for businesses looking to infuse their culture with a sense of purpose, while future-proofing supply chains and securing a lasting competitive advantage.

Interested a transition to a circular model but stuck on the tech? Perhaps you’re already working on circular economy technologies? Either way, we’d love to hear from you.

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About the author

Barry O'Kane

Barry is the founder of HappyPorch. With 20 years in the web development industry as a programmer and agency owner, he has a preternatural ability to decipher the systems and processes code that holds many teams back from achieving their goals. Partners say Barry gets to the root of issues quickly and makes it downright easy to deliver good work.    

While he's unbelievably grounded, it's not uncommon to find him sailing through the trees as he paraglides his way round the world.