We want, we deserve, we need a zero waste society
In an ever-changing globalized world, environmental problems such as resource depletion, loss of biodiversity and pollution of natural resources, as well as economic challenges ranging from high unemployment, the widening inequality gap, intergenerational equity and financial instabilities illustrate the pressing need to transition to a more sustainable system. The question of sustainability, which has been gaining ground in policymakers’ agendas, is not exclusive to environmental concerns. Rather the concept alludes to the idea of human activity being conducted in a way that ensures the well-being, health and security of future generations and the earth’s ecosystems. But how can this be achieved?
The investigation of the conflict within and between economic activity and the environment can be traced back to the 1960s and has since revealed even more sources of tensions. Today, we’re deeply aware that change is indispensable. It is essential to improve the management of resources as a means to shape inclusive, sustainable economies: this is where the concept of green economy emerges. The main reasons for governments to accelerate structural change in their economies is the fact that economic growth has been attained at the cost of the overexploitation of natural resources, a process which has been proven to be unsustainable. Thus, restructuring the industrial systems of our society needs to be done through a cross-sector approach. A circular economy model has gained popularity as an alternative to the linear economic model presiding in our society, insinuating a regenerative system where resources, waste, emissions and energy leakage are minimized and effective. Researchers say this can be achieved by eco-friendly and long-lasting design of products, maintenance, repair, remanufacturing, refurbishing and recycling materials and products.
The most important aspect of the circular economy model is the increased capture and recovery of materials at the end of their service life so that they can be recycled and reused in new products, thus prioritising the extension of life cycles of different products and extracting the maximum value from resources being used. However, a concept that plays a very important role in this model poses a challenge to it at the same time: its ownership. One of the main aspects of a circular economy is the structure of how we use durable products: Instead of owning our devices, we would lease, license and share them under the agreement that at the end of the product’s life, it will be returned and disassembled so that its reusable parts could be incorporated in the next generation of devices.
Another important feature of this system is the design of the products. In a linear global economic model the manufacturing, distribution, consumption and trade system for many products is designed for them to be thrown away immediately after use. It is therefore of the utmost importance that decisions regarding production are based on the sustainability of the entire life cycle of the product, instead of basing them solely on the resource efficiency at the end of the life cycle. Currently, companies, particularly manufacturing ones, are driven by increasing revenues through sales volume and cost reduction in supply chains, factories and operations. The current linear economy is hence based on a “take-make-dispose” system where products are becoming commodities and resource scarcity is becoming a reality. In order to stay competitive in this economic context and given societal pressures for environment protection, companies are increasingly looking for alternative ways to achieve sustainable growth and enhance resource efficiency.
The transition to a circular economy in companies requires changes in their business models that can promote a shift from selling just products to selling their utility. In this context, the role digital technologies play in supporting the transition to a circular economy is tremendous. The disruptive potential of Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data analytics have already become hot topics of digitalization over the last few years. Similarly, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), a data collection technology, has attracted significant attention within the context of the circular economy system. RFID uses electromagnetic fields to automatically identify and track tags attached to objects which can contain valuable information on how the product was utilized by the customer. This is especially beneficial as it can be used to estimate the quality level of the return and to increase transparency and efficiency. In the context of circular economy, IoT, meaning sensors and actuators connected by networks to computing systems, is able to collect information generated by the sensors to connect stakeholders across the value chain, thus describing the circular economy model as dynamic feedback control loops. Another communication technology, SIGFOX, emerged in the last decade and is used to support IoT devices and their communication with the central systems. This technology will allow the tracking of billions of objects due to its simplicity and very low costs. Machine learning, also referred to as AI, can be applied in the context of circular economy to support processes and system optimization based on huge amounts of data. As a consequence of this increase of technical data collection capacity Big Data analytics comes into play. Big Data is seen as an approach to make the use of information from various systems of record such as IoT, to monitor processes of production and consumption that eventually allow material flows to be closed easily. Additionally, real time data analytics improves companies’ decision making.
For this transition to happen, governments must hold manufacturers accountable for the life cycle of their products while the private sector should adopt business models that reflect a social and environmental responsibility for the downstream effects of their product. Taking into consideration the case of a much-contested issue-single use plastics-if green targets were implemented in Europe and North America, then studies suggest a potential reduction of $7.9 billion in the environmental cost of plastics net terms. Steps have already been taken in this regard. In 2015, the EU Commission adopted an Action Plan for a circular economy when it identified plastics as a key priority for this transition and promised to “prepare a strategy addressing the challenges posed by plastics throughout the value chain and taking into account their entire life-cycle.”
This circular model was conceptualized as a loop economy, describing strategies for waste prevention, resource efficiency and ultimately the repurpose of used materials. Sustainability has opened the door to expectations about what materials and products should be developed, what needs to be sustained, for how long and for the benefit of whom. In this way, a circular economy strategy lays the groundwork for a new sustainable economy, with great changes to our consumption behaviour and even our conceptualization of property, where the design, production and consumption of products and services fully respects the needs of a 21st century society.