Net Zero Spotlight: SMEs Leading Innovation to Tackle the Climate Crisis

SME led innovation is key to solving the multitude of issues facing the environment.

As part of techUK’s involvement at COP26, we’ve seen how climate tech innovation is at the forefront of addressing the climate crisis. SMEs are some of the brightest minds in climate technology. We asked three of our SME members N2S, Circulor, and Hummingbird Technologies to provide us with case studies showcasing the unique ways they have innovated to tackle the climate crisis. 

Closing the loop on e-waste  

Andrew Brown, Head of Sustainability Solutions, N2S Ltd.  

N2S Ltd was founded in 2002. For nearly two decades, the company has been providing solutions that deal with end-of-life technology equipment.  

According to the Global E-waste Monitor, the ICT industry is generating 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste a year in 2019. It is the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, with a material value worth at least £50 billion. This includes an estimated £7 billion of precious metals such as gold and silver. Despite this, under 20 per cent of e-waste is currently recycled, with much ending up in developing countries, with pollutants finding their way into the water supply and food chain. 

N2S end-to-end IT recycling solutions extend to office clearance and de-installations, data centre de-installation and highly secure on and off-site data destruction. They enable the reuse, re-sale, and recycling of legacy devices. It currently recycles some 250,000 IT devices per year, advocating the EU waste hierarchy. It has maintained a zero-to-landfill policy since 2015. 

N2S is also trailblazing new, innovative solutions to e-waste problems. In partnership with Coventry University, it has developed a ground-breaking biotechnology process which enables critical raw materials including gold, platinum, nickel, and copper, found in printed circuit boards in almost every IT device, to be recovered using bacteria to oxidise the metal content. This process, known as ‘Bioleaching’, is a UK-first in the tech sector. 

With an estimated £15 billion in gold and silver and other rare earth metals used each year in the manufacture of new electronic devices, N2S’s pioneering bioleaching process allows the recovered metals to be re-introduced back into the manufacturing process, helping to reduce the need to further mine for raw materials and creating a truly circular economy for technology. 

N2S is turning the world’s IT lifecycle challenge into a truly closed loop solution, which fully supports the UK Government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution as well as addressing UN-recognised issues around e-waste. 

The company’s vision for companies and consumers to use technology from 100% recycled metals using the greenest methods is now being realised, thanks to a three-year Innovate UK research grant and recent investment. Pioneering research to making technology more circular continues and the company is now starting to scale its bioleaching solution, which was launched this week at the COP26 Tech for Climate Action event in Glasgow. 


Blockchain-enabled supply chain traceability 

Veera Johnson, Co-Founder, Circulor.  

Circulor is a global technology business that enables companies to gain visibility into their supply chains, improve their ESG performance, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and demonstrate responsible sourcing and sustainability.  

Amidst the many factors that contribute to the climate crisis, the significant role of industrial supply chains can no longer be ignored, Johnson says. The cornerstone of decarbonisation is achieving traceability in our supply chains. Understanding the provenance of source materials across their supply chains enables organisations to make informed sourcing and manufacturing decisions, whilst enabling them to prove responsible sourcing of primary critical materials.  

Our solutions create a dynamic picture of a company’s supply chain to provide a high level of transparency, including its carbon footprint at every stage. We provide data in real-time to meet the granular detail required to make comparisons, informing decisions to choose lower emitting routes and drive improvements with suppliers in countries whose governments are not enacting the same level of change. We are on a mission to make the world’s most complex industrial supply chains more transparent in order to prevent the exploitation of people and our planet. 

We are working with pioneers like Polestar and Volvo Cars who are setting ambitious goals of ethical sourcing and producing climate-neutral cars by 2030. Through our work with Vulcan Energy, we are working to ensure a fully traceable production of zero-carbon lithium. This will be the world’s first fully transparent and zero-carbon lithium product extracted and consumed in Europe. Our traceability solution assigns a digital identity to commodities, allowing us to track supply-chain data and environmental impacts at each stage of production, including recycling and end-of-life.  

Circulor is also working with NGOs in Indonesia to establish safe and fair working conditions for plastic pickers, big issues for manufacturers using recycled plastics content in their products. Monitoring and reporting on different aspects of human rights will improve the lives of disadvantaged communities who serve the rest of the world. 

There is no denying that it is complicated. Supply chains are global, complex and have a significant number of diverse actors. Whilst there are many amazing innovations in manufacturing and recycling capabilities, they will not drive a sustainable future on their own. To achieve net zero targets, organisations must address the need for transparency in their global supply chains. The time is now to make complex, global supply chains traceable, ethical, and sustainable 


AI in the Race to Net Zero 

Will Wells, Founder and President, Hummingbird Technologies 

Hummingbird Technologies is an award-winning, world leading imagery analytics provider which combines AI, data analytics and satellite imagery to support regenerative agriculture and measure carbon sequestration in soils. It is a Sunday Times Fast Track 100 company and was awarded KPMG’s technology start-up of the year in 2019. 

Climate change has locked us all in a race against time that I believe only super computational power and artificial intelligence can help us win. As the IPCC’s most recent report laid bare, we are in the decisive decade to mitigate a near term 1.5 C global temperature rise. We need technology to help us revolutionise the way we produce energy and food, as well as manage industry and transportation (together, these four activities account for 94% of global GHG emissions). AI should be at the forefront of this paradigm shift. 

Hummingbird Technologies, founded in 2016, is leading the way in terms of enabling regenerative agriculture through AI. By harnessing deep learning and remote sensing data at a vast, pixelated scale, it creates maps from optical and radar satellites, facilitating reduced chemical inputs in food production, while allowing users to monitor, verify and report agri-food supply chain sustainability practices (for carbon trading, govt subsidy or corporate insetting purposes). 

This allows the agrifood industry to quickly scale up an objective audit of key management practices. Scalable and cost-effective verification of regenerative agricultural practices will unlock a huge opportunity for farmers to monetise best practices and decarbonise food production. If harnessed correctly, this sector has huge potential as a trillion metric tonne carbon sink. This decade of climate action is a golden opportunity to operationalise AI for decarbonisation in pursuit of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

For more information on Climate Tech innovation find our report here. Guidance for SMEs on transitioning to Net Zero can also be found here.  

Related topics