5 disruptive technologies driving the circular economy

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Apple's robot, Liam, can split old iPhones into their components for reuse in 11 seconds.

Increased transparency, new customer expectations and emerging technologies are disrupting traditional sources of competitiveness.

From mobile to machine learning, big data to blockchain, seemingly there’s no end to what technology can enable or improve.

As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, new technologies carry immense opportunities to transform the way we do business. These technologies are driving new ways of creating value in a circular economy, for both emerging and established businesses alike.

Given the fragility of the linear economy, based on its reliance on finite natural resources for growth, and as we move ever closer to the brink of our planet’s boundaries, it seems companies with their heads in the clouds could be the key to unlocking the value in a regenerative, recycling economy.

Technology and sustainability

Technological advancement has catalyzed the development and implementation of circular business models, driving new processes, new communication channels and new operational efficiencies that enable the decoupling of resource use from economic growth across industries and on a global scale.

Digital, physical and biological technologies are quickly maturing and, in some cases, demonstrating exponential growth in their application and uptake.

While digital technologies are based on computer sciences, electronics and communication, physical technologies focus on the basic property of materials, energy, forces of nature and their interaction. Meanwhile, biological technologies are primarily based on the structure and function of living organisms, their systems or the derivatives thereof.

Together, this combination of technologies gives an injection of momentum to disrupt current industry models. Here's a selection of leaders.

1. Rubicon Global (cloud, big data)

Rubicon’s cloud-based, big-data platform connects waste producers with a network of independent waste haulers across 50 states in the US and Canada, as well as 18 more countries. This enables higher diversion rates from landfill, creative reuse of waste material, optimized truck routes and the detailed analysis of waste data.

2. NCC (mobile)

Through their open eco-system, Loop Rocks platform, NCC are allowing the inherently asset-heavy construction industry to become more resource efficient. Their app makes waste from over 600 sites available to other companies at a reduced price, optimising the handling of waste and secondary masses in a smarter, cost-effective and more environmentally conscious manner.

3. Hello Tractor (machine-to-machine communication and mobile)

Based in Nigeria, Hello Tractor uses mobile technology to enable over 250,000 small-hold farmers to obtain tractor services on demand, improving their food and income security. Furthermore, the tractors are fitted with M2M technology to share information on the vehicle and its efficiency, in turn maximizing the use, extending the tractor's usable lifecycle and increasing the value yielded from the machine.

4. Apple (robotics)

Liam, Apple’s iPhone disassembly robot, has 29 arms and is capable of dismantling a discarded iPhone in 11 seconds, and separating its component parts into usable materials, capturing the value from previously discarded resources at an unprecedented rate. To date, Apple has captured 61 million pounds of material that is reusable in future products, including 2,204 pounds of gold, to a value of $40 million.

5. gCycle (bio-based materials)

Pioneers in the eco-friendly diaper industry, gCycle’s gDiaper is the world’s first certified cradle-to-cradle, 100 percent compostable children’s diaper. By replacing oil-based plastic with non-GMO corn biofilm, gDiapers allow childcare centers to divert 80 percent of their waste stream from landfill.

Technology is central to enabling and driving value in the circular economy. The importance and role of it is recognized by the Circulars, the world’s premier circular economy award program.

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