Our current economy is linear. Fossil fuels are extracted from the earth, then sent to a chemical refinery, made into plastic bags, then shipped to the Trader Joe’s on Hyperion Ave. in Los Angeles where a friendly guy packs my groceries, after which I go home and immediately throw the bag away. It then takes a trip to the landfill, never to be heard from again…except perhaps as degraded microplastics in my tap water.
Long story short, our economy is built on taking finite materials and turning them into waste, so we can consume more finite materials. It’s inherently unsustainable, inefficient, and dumb. The system needs a complete overhaul.
Long after humans have made their exit, leaving chaos in their wake, nature will find a way to achieve such an overhaul. The natural order of life is cooperative, regenerative, distributive, and circular. Capitalism has not improved on nature’s design.
Or else we can do it before we disappear, or at least destroy the planet as we know it. A circular economy is one designed to stop waste from being produced in the first place. The chief proponent of the circular economy, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, writes that “the problem (and solution) starts with design…There is no waste in nature, it is a concept we have introduced.” The circular model involves sharing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, recycling, and regenerating existing resources and products for as long as possible.
The three core principles of the circular economy, as defined by the Foundation, are:
- Eliminate Waste and Pollution
- Circulate Products and Materials (at their highest value)
- Regenerate Nature
For a great overview of the circular economy, watch Ellen MacArthur’s own eloquent explanation here:
The foundation’s butterfly model (below) differentiates between the technical and biological cycles. The technical is everything that doesn’t biodegrade – think metals and plastics– materials we need to recover and circulate back into the system. The biological, well, biodegrades – food, wood, cotton – anything that, if designed properly, would return to the soil. One critical problem with our current economy is that we clumsily fuse the technical with the biological in ways that make both unrecoverable – think about, for example, a poly-cotton blend t-shirt.
For the transition toward circularity, we need products that optimize durability, ease of maintenance and repair, re-manufacturability, separability, disassembly, and reassembly. The transition will also require extensive infrastructure for collecting, sorting, separating, treatment, and redistribution.
How Can Tech Help?
Pivoting to the circular economy will require both low and high tech solutions. A few areas where tech is having significant impact:
- Internet of Things: IoT can be deployed for smarter waste management. Sensors, mobile applications, and analytics platforms reduce inefficiencies and improve collection and reclamation. Ishitva Robotics Systems, for example, offers an IoT-enabled smart bin that automatically segregates dry waste like paper, plastics, and cans. It also analyzes the waste and generates reports on usage patterns, types and amount of waste collected, and time spent on collecting waste.
- Artificial Intelligence: Artificial Intelligence has perhaps the most wide-ranging applications. AI can be leveraged in the original design process for products, as well as their inventory management, predictive maintenance, dynamic pricing, plus things like agricultural waste reduction, and much more. Visual recognition and AI-powered sensors are turbo-charging circularity. AMP Robotics uses machine learning to recognize different colors, textures, shapes, sizes, patterns, and even brands. “If a beverage maker like Coca-Cola wants to identify its own branded packaging in a landfill to improve product lifecycle management, it could have the potential to do that, too,” reads AMP’s website.
- Robotics: As Pixar’s beloved WALL-E suggested, robots are perfectly suited for sorting, disassembly, and repair. ZenRobotics machines can sort myriad material streams, from plastic packaging to construction waste, with an accuracy level of 98%. And don’t forget about Liam, Apple’s iPhone disassembly robot introduced in 2016, which has 29 arms and can dismantle an iPhone in 11 seconds, separating the parts into usable materials.
- Blockchain: Traceability and transparency are essential in the circular economy. Blockchains (generally private ones rather than the public ones behind cryptocurrencies) can be used to track materials, components, and products throughout a supply chain, from the moment they are first extracted or created all the way through their life, over many cycles. Our friends at Goodr (CEO Jasmine Crowe spoke at Techonomy 19 and NYC 19) use a blockchain to connect grocery stores and restaurants that have surplus food with homeless shelters and community food pantries, ensuring in the process that the food is transported safely.
But these are by no means the only technologies that can enable the circular economy. 3D printing, regenerative agriculture, bioengineering, social media, and many more have a role to play. And all of us as individuals also have a critical role to play. Behaviors like sharing, composting, and refurbishing instead of replacing will require low tech solutions and, most importantly, a mind shift.
This will not be easy. But it’s the only way to sustain life on this planet long term. It must be a strategic, collaborative process with equity and prosperity for all at the core. If we do it quickly and thoughtfully, a transition to a circular economy may save us from ecological collapse and climate disaster and would dramatically improve our health and wellbeing.