A Circular Economy: An Untapped Opportunity for the IoT Industry

Internet of Things technologies can enable the circular economy, which is changing the very nature of how business is done. However, the IoT industry has yet to embrace this incredible opportunity.
By Lauren Roman
Jun 01, 2016

Update: Lauren Roman will present a webinar, hosted by AIM, on Wednesday, June 29, at 11 EST. More information here.

Europe recently committed more than $6 billion to build a circular economy, and U.S. and global corporations are taking note. So, what is a circular economy? Let's start with the basics.

Our usual "take – make – (maybe recycle) – dispose" linear economic model just does not work. This model places the onus for material recovery on consumers, cities and towns. It also contributes to the degradation of materials, and fails to recapture or reuse the energy required to manufacture products.

Alternately, a circular economic model is one that is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. An apparel manufacturer, for example, can integrate RFID into clothing so customers can get information on the product's origin, such as ensuring that an item was created ethically, for example, and enabling recyclers to identify fabrics for proper recovery. Manufacturers can sell "products as a service," by providing ongoing access to goods rather than selling them directly to consumers, and maintaining the goods during their usef¬¬ul life before recovering and recycling them.

For the first time ever, we have the technology to identify, authenticate, locate and track materials so they can be maintained and recovered. IoT technologies will play a vital role in enabling circular economies.

In February of this year, the Ellen McArthur Foundation released a report titled "Intelligent Assets: Unlocking the Circular Economy Potential." In it, Kate Brandt, who leads Google's sustainability program, is quoted thusly: "The Internet of Things…can play a key role in providing valuable data about energy use, under-utilised assets and material flows to help make businesses more efficient. [Its] role in building a more circular economy is critical...."

The report's appendix includes 17 circular economy case studies, all supported by the IoT, including:

Hewlett-Packard's Instant Ink service provides printing-as-a-service to individuals and small businesses. The IoT-connected printers send customers replacement cartridges, along with postage-paid envelopes for used cartridges, before they run out of ink. HP also collects data on the machine's condition for predictive maintenance and planning for new product design

Provenance, a UK-based technology firm, uses blockchain transactional database technology as a platform to help businesses and consumers keep track of materials and associated data, through use cycles. For example, a bicycle can be registered on the blockchain by the manufacturer using the frame number as a reference. The bike buyer can receive a digital passport that authenticates the manufacturer, provides important product information and logs any repairs that are made. Secondary buyers would then have an immutable history of the bike and its maintenance, making extended use of the asset much more probable.

This movement to circular economic systems is unlike any sustainability movement before, and is happening at a time like no other.

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