Going full circle: Circular economy, sustainability, and AI

Date
March 26, 2024
Hot topics 🔥
Sustainability Trends
Contributor
Mario Grunitz
Going full circle: Circular economy, sustainability, and AI

Each year, over 2 billion metric tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) are generated globally. Harrowingly, this number is expected to increase by roughly 70% by 2050. With such large volumes of waste rising annually, the need for adequate recycling, waste treatment, and disposal services is becoming critically important.

According to reports, only 7.2% of materials are cycled back into the economy globally. This means that over 90% of materials are either wasted, lost, or cannot be reused for years as they form long-lasting items such as buildings and machinery.

As a result, countries from around the world including the European Union are introducing legislation on waste management to encourage the shift to a more sustainable model. A promising prospect is the pivot to a circular economy.

What is a circular economy?

The concept of the circular economy revolves around a production and consumption model that prioritises sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling materials and products to prolong their lifespan. By doing so, products are kept in circulation for as long as possible, effectively extending their life cycle.

At its core, this approach aims to minimise waste generation. When products reach the end of their usefulness, efforts are made to retain their materials within the economy through recycling. This enables these materials to be repeatedly used, generating additional value in the process.

Benefits of a circular economy

By reimagining traditional linear production and consumption models, the circular economy offers a sustainable alternative that not only benefits the environment but also contributes to economic growth and job creation.

Environmental protection

A circular economy model is designed to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. According to the European Environment Agency, industrial processes and product use create 9.10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, while waste management accounts for 3.32%. By transitioning to a circular economy, we can significantly reduce these emissions by reducing the use of natural resources, minimising waste generation, and maximising resource efficiency.

Additionally, designing efficient and sustainable products from the outset can significantly decrease energy and resource usage. Packaging poses a significant challenge, with the average European generating nearly 180 kilograms of packaging waste annually.

Transitioning to durable products that allow for reuse, upgrades, and repairs can lower waste production. Addressing excessive packaging and enhancing its design to encourage reuse and recycling is a key objective.

Reduction in usage of raw materials

One of the pillars of the circular economy is the substitution and reduction in the usage of raw materials. The scarcity of global resources and supply means that many countries rely on outsourcing their essential raw materials. The emissions caused by attaining and transporting these raw materials contribute to significant pollution.

Recycling raw materials not only conserves valuable resources but also mitigates many risks. These risks include price fluctuations, limited availability, and import dependency, particularly for critical raw materials crucial for technologies essential to achieving climate objectives, such as batteries and electric engines.

Extension of product life

In a circular economy, products are designed with longevity in mind, and efforts are made to maintain, repair, and upgrade them to maximise their lifespan. Take-back strategies ensure that products are given a second life whenever possible.

This goes against the traditional, linear economic model based on a take-make-consume-throw-away practice. It also is a departure from planned obsolescence, when products are designed to have a limited lifespan to encourage multiple and continuous purchases.

ReTuna, the world’s first recycling mall located in Eskilstuna, Sweden, exemplifies this approach by offering repurposed or upcycled goods, contributing to the extension of product life. Similarly, innovations like Apeel demonstrate how the lifecycle of fresh fruits and vegetables can be stretched through innovative preservation techniques.

Expansion of the job market

Transitioning towards a circular economy has the potential to stimulate economic growth and create employment opportunities. By increasing competitiveness and fostering innovation, a circular economy could generate an estimated 700,000 jobs in the EU alone by 2030.

This expansion of the job market not only boosts economic prosperity but also fosters a more sustainable society.

Enabling a circular economy

The Circular Gap Report 2024 by the Circular Economy Foundation presents an analysis of solutions tailored to the unique profiles of countries across income levels (low-, middle-, and high-income). The report highlights the importance of addressing three key systems – food, the built environment, and manufactured goods – in advancing the circular economy agenda.

In essence, the driving forces behind systemic change towards a circular economy are multifaceted, with various stakeholders playing pivotal roles.

Government

Governments hold a significant responsibility in steering this transition by implementing policies and legal frameworks that not only incentivise circular practices but also penalise activities that go against them. By creating regulations, governments can increase the adoption of circular principles across industries and sectors.

Financial actors

Financial actors in both the public and private sectors are crucial agents of change in driving the circular economy forward. They can contribute by changing policies to create financial incentives for circular solutions. They can also help fund and support circular initiatives to drive its implementation and scalability.

Citizens

People play a fundamental role in driving the circular economy model at the grassroots level. Raising awareness among citizens about the importance of adopting circular behaviours in their daily lives can lead to the widespread adoption of sustainable practices and behaviours. Empowering workers with equitable access to circular opportunities will ensure that the benefits of circular practices are distributed fairly across communities.

The role of AI in a circular economy

Technology is playing a critical role in helping to drive sustainability which we cover regularly in our blog. From hardware that drives green web hosting and energy-efficient servers to automation, AI, VR and AR helping to make major industries more sustainable, technology is helping us reduce emissions.

Here’s how AI plays an important role in ensuring sustainability within a circular economy:

Recycling and resource management

AI-driven robotic sorting systems use machine learning algorithms and robotics to efficiently sort and segregate waste materials, surpassing manual processes and significantly elevating recycling rates.

Predictive maintenance

AI-powered algorithms can preemptively address equipment issues before they are needed for disposal or recycling. Companies like IBM harness AI-powered IoT sensors to monitor equipment health and predict potential failures, enabling timely maintenance interventions and reducing the frequency of replacements.

Supply chain optimisation

In supply chain optimisation, AI’s analytical capabilities streamline operations, minimise waste, and reduce resource usage. Companies like Google leverage machine learning algorithms to make data-informed decisions regarding supply chain management that reduce inefficiencies and optimise resource allocation.

Product as a Service (PaaS)

The Product as a Service (PaaS) model promotes the production of durable and recyclable goods, thereby reducing waste generation. Philips, for example, offers “light as a service”, where they maintain ownership of lighting systems and manage their maintenance aided by AI’s predictive maintenance capabilities.

Going full circle

Indeed, the circular economy model presents a transformative approach to addressing the pressing challenges of resource depletion, waste generation, and environmental degradation. It seems to be the best approach we have at the moment.

By prioritising sustainability, resource efficiency, and innovation, the circular economy offers a pathway towards a more resilient and equitable future. But it won’t be a cakewalk. We need collaborative efforts involving governments, businesses and consumers to embody the principles of circularity to unlock its embedded economic opportunities while mitigating environmental impact.

In the end, it all comes down to this: embracing the circular economy not only enables us to preserve our planet for future generations but also fosters a more sustainable and prosperous global community.

Are you in?

Mario Grunitz

Mario is a Strategy Lead and Co-founder of WeAreBrain, bringing over 20 years of rich and diverse experience in the technology sector. His passion for creating meaningful change through technology has positioned him as a thought leader and trusted advisor in the tech community, pushing the boundaries of digital innovation and shaping the future of AI.

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