How tech can help keep more resources in the ground

Earth Overshoot Day is the day of the year the planet consumes more than it can naturally replace. In 2018 it landed on 1 August, a day earlier than 2017 and months over what we should be. In 2018 we will use 1.7 Earths worth of resources and if everybody consumed what the USA consumed we’d need 5 Earths per year (Europe doesn’t fare much better).

These are just a couple of the truly startling statistics that show why we need to change the way we use resources and the arguments for moving towards a ‘circular economy’, a business model where resources are reused and recycled rather than disposed of. This way of doing things is becoming increasingly compelling; not just as an environmental necessity, or because policy makers and customers demand it (which they increasingly do), but because it offers, if you can crack the business model, the ability to create new markets, extract more value and keep costs down.

Tech devices 

Whatever you’re reading this on will have a lot of stuff in it. Materials like glass, plastics, silicon, copper, plastic, zinc, gold (yes, gold) and more get extracted and bought to factories to be processed, engineered and manufactured into products we all use and as more people want tech products, more resources are inevitably required. Asia has seen a 10,200% increase in regular Internet users since 2000 (Europe meanwhile is at 570%) which shows the scale of demand. 

So how have tech manufacturers responded? Apple has publicly announced its ambition to become mining free, meaning it wants to move into a position where it no longer uses any new or ‘virgin’ materials in its products. Supported by a new disassembly robot that can take 200 phones iPhone apart per hour, they are developing the capability to reuse recovered parts for new models and recover valuable materials. Canon have an ambition to be famous for its response to the Circular Economy. Samsung, meanwhile, have launched a doorstep repair service, using trained engineers to carry out repairs in your home, helping to remove some of the barriers people face it they want to repair their products. 

More is being done too to encourage design for circular economy. Industry is developing a suite of standards on material efficiency which will ultimately be used to encourage products to be designed so that can be designed for a circular economy. These promise to deliver changes at a scale that an individual manufacturer alone cannot.

Technology can unlock circularity for others

Getting more out of the products we own is not just something device manufacturers are thinking about. Peer-to-peer sharing platforms, 4IR technologies, blockchain and data analytics can all help others to unlock this new business model. 

New tools that help manufacturers understand the state of their machines is one example. SAP developed a predictive maintenance solution that uses information like temperature, vibration and rotations to assess if industrial products will break. This gives the operators a heads up to carry out maintenance before a machine is irreversibly broken and means the company does not lose productivity by facing avoidable downtime. 

Internet of Things technology can be used to verify where things are in supply chains, making storage of parts more efficient and reducing unnecessary journeys. Analytics and big data can enable a more informed commodities markets, making it less volatile to bulk buy secondary materials and nascent tech like blockchain can make sure provenance of secondary resources are known through the supply chain. 

It remains early days: but collaboration with the tech sector on the circular economy is increasingly looking like an imperative for companies wanting to embrace this new paradigm.

 

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