Our economy was never created to be sustainable.
Our entire global society is largely built on a linear model of take-make-waste. Our devices, cars, and buildings were not built to be taken apart and reused. They were intended to be thrown away. We pour our time, resources, and human capital into developing high technology systems that are destined to become trash. To us, that seems like a massive waste of human potential.
It’s easy to say this is just the way the world works, and that changing it would be a massive challenge. But research shows that more than seven in ten consumers want to adopt circular practices. As innovators, it’s our job to help them, by removing friction from sustainable decisions. Already, new circular business models are enabling companies to make more money, without creating more products. Think of the circular economy as a lens through which we can intentionally redesign our products, businesses, and societies to cooperate with the environment.
It’s time to consider the unintended consequences of 250 years of growth for the sake of growth - and reimagine our economy to instead evolve in harmony with the earth. This inflection point in human history offers us all the chance to play a role in redesigning the world we’ll leave behind: one where waste and pollution are eliminated in favor of keeping materials in use and regenerating the natural ecosystems we all need to survive.
Circular business models are taking off in the fashion industry, where fast fashion, water use, chemical dyeing, and textile waste have become major contributors to the climate crisis. Subscription models enable customers to try new clothes, without spending more than they can afford. Recommerce platforms expand access to the luxury market by offering affordable second hand designer clothing. By creating business models built around the sharing, reuse, or repurposing of clothing, companies are increasing revenue without manufacturing additional products.
That’s great news for the fashion industry - but what about all the others? From consumer goods products, to our furniture, devices, vehicles, and even houses, the circular economy offers companies the chance to build richer relationships with customers. We can improve our bottom lines with service models that also keep natural resources in circulation. But to get to the tipping point required for the circular economy to really flourish, we’ll have to rethink our infrastructure from the ground up. Here’s five technology enablers that we’ll need to revolutionize our supply chains by kickstarting the circular economy at scale.
1. Embedded product codes
Our recycling system is broken. Because human beings are required to manually sort through the various refuse deposited into recycling bins, making virgin plastic and other materials is simply cheaper than reusing it. We have to change that if we want the circular economy to work at scale.
Embedding information about products’ components is the first step, which would have to occur during manufacturing. With passive markings such as QR codes, we can denote which products are recyclable, which have toxic components, which contain rare earth metals that can be reused, and so on. If we design these codes to be machine readable, we can improve traceability and autonomously route them from the end of their first life, to the beginning of their next. It’s worth keeping in mind that the leaders on this front get to define the standards for others in their industry.
2. Smart capture & sorting
The majority of sustainability initiatives tend to focus primarily on the production side of the circular economy. It’s not hard to understand why: after all, it’s easier to control your business’s carbon footprint than base your success on the behavior of your customers. But creating a truly circular system will require us to innovate not only on the front end of the value chain, but on the back end as well.
New technologies will be required in order to divert useful materials from waste chains, autonomously sort them according to their materials and properties, and route them so they can be safely repurposed. Consider electronics, which are actually the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. Even though gold, silver, platinum, copper and other metals within our devices are extremely valuable, only 17.4% of our electronics are recycled today - meaning an estimated $57 billion in reusable materials ends up in landfills worldwide. Meanwhile, the pandemic has created global shortages of chips that show just how fragile our supply chains are for critical systems. Developing new systems to acquire the reusable components of all products offers a huge opportunity for environmental responsibility, resource independence, and profit lines.
3. Autonomous assembly & disassembly systems
To achieve the potential of the circular economy, we will also have to develop autonomous systems to make, unmake, and remake our goods. This effort starts at the design stage: instead of only considering how a product looks, performs, and lasts, we’ll also have to investigate how to design for disassembly and reassembly. Consider the construction industry: in 2018, over 600 million tons of waste was generated by construction & demolition in the US alone. Globally, waste from building and tearing down properties is forecast to nearly double by 2025, to 2.2 billion tons.
In architecture, the concept of designing for disassembly has gained increasing traction as customers and businesses seek spaces that can grow with them. Envisioning a building’s end of life and deconstruction can influence everything from materials selection, to joining methodology, standardization, and the modularity of technical systems, creating future-forward spaces that anticipate the needs of their inhabitants. Curiously, by designing for the end of life, these practitioners are creating flexible environments that have a longer useful life in the first place. It’s a mindset worth spreading to any industry that manufactures goods.
But we can’t just design for disassembly - we have to invent technologies for deconstruction and repurposing, too. How might demolition zones change if they morphed into dismantling, autonomous sorting, and refabrication zones instead? Our supply chains were built to flow one way, with incredibly specialized tools to expedite the process. Now, we’ll need to apply our ingenuity to developing infrastructure that makes remanufacturing more cost-effective, energy efficient, and convenient than the alternative.
4. Rewards & incentives
Sustainable solutions that can easily replace conventional ones typically enjoy higher adoption rates than circular products that require a change in routine. Unfortunately, many people believe that choosing a sustainable product will require some sacrifice on their part, whether in terms of quality, cost, or convenience. Until we can change this perception, we need to develop new technical infrastructure that enables individuals, businesses, and even governments to earn rewards for sustainable behavior.
By embedding passive codes into our products as discussed earlier, we can trace their trajectory, how many times they were reused by their first owner, and how they were eventually discarded. We will need new indexing systems for tracking the movement of materials throughout our supply chains, customer journeys, and ecosystems. In tandem, we will have to develop new methodologies for accessing and understanding this complex data in an actionable way. Then, we can build experiences around these stories. For instance, if we could learn about the past lives of the gold, titanium, or silicon in our devices - would we be more committed to ensuring they have a future?
If we can understand the factors that contribute to decision making throughout a product’s lifecycle, then we can engineer circular systems, rewards programs, and business models to incentivize sustainable behavior.
5. Digital trust
If this last one seems abstract, consider the stark rejection of science that has increasingly divided Americans: into climate believers and deniers; into those who believe the pandemic exists, and those who don’t; and now, into the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The anti-science stance is going global. So in order to ensure that the circular economy is not a half-society solution, we have to rebuild trust in science, expertise, and each other.
The circular economy will require all of us to opt into business models that rely on our data. In order to derive rewards from sustainable incentive programs, we will have to accept that our purchases will be tallied. After all, a circular consumer goods company will know when our personalized, keepsake soap dispenser ends up in a waste stream. So far, large technology companies have proven dangerously cavalier about the incredibly personal data they hold. It’s time to introduce a new paradigm in digital trust, one that prioritizes transparency over tracking and stops using people as products. By creating technical experiences that help individuals understand carbon footprint, learn about sustainable solutions, and reap benefits from their behavior, we can build back the social trust we’ll need to scale the circular economy.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed at the scale of the problem. The UN and other groups continue to publish increasingly urgent, “code red” reports on the state of our climate. The industrial revolution has delivered unprecedented achievements in terms of human quality of life - but now, increasingly volatile weather, ecological catastrophe, and food insecurity have laid bare the limits of this model. If we are brave enough to confront the future we can all see coming, then we can grow a new global society that creates opportunities through circularity, security, and environmental stewardship.
We will have to rely on each other in order to protect our futures. The great and daunting thing about redesigning our entire economy is that it will require everyone to participate. We simply do not have time for people, businesses, or governments to sit on the sidelines. Sustainability, as it turns out, requires collective action—and it might be just the motivator we need to stitch together our global community.