Why Google, and the business world, are embracing the circular economy

Kate Brandt
GreenBiz
Kate Brandt is challenging Google to think differently about "finite" resources, such as the servers it uses to power its data centers.

Despite being a digital behemoth, managing the world's bits and bytes for all manner of information services, Google actually generates a lot of "stuff," such as servers in its data centers, campus food for its employees and consumer electronics for its customers. In an effort to tackle the waste associated with these types of things, the search engine giant Tuesday launched a new goal to become more "circular" — to focus on designing out waste in its processes and maximizing the reuse of the stuff in its systems.

At the debut of the GreenBiz Circularity conference Tuesday in Minneapolis, Google Chief Sustainability Officer Kate Brandt unveiled Google's new plan, and an accompanying white paper (PDF), about the topic. "We want a circular Google in a sustainable world. Now, of course, getting there is as inspiring as it is daunting. It means the entire system needs to change," Brandt said during the opening plenary session for Circularity 19.

Google isn't alone. If you've never heard the term "circular economy," it's time to wake up to one of the biggest sustainability trends confronting companies around the world.

The phrase circular economy describes the effort across industries from fashion to food to packaging to redesign the way that finite resources are used and to ensure that materials are kept in reuse for as long as possible. The core idea is that "waste does not exist in nature. ... Why not redesign the world around us and make sure products are kept in reuse?" explained Ashima Sukhdev, program lead for the Government and Cities Program at Ellen MacArthur Foundation, during a kickoff talk at Circularity 19. 

There are three reasons why businesses like the idea of the circular economy, Sukhdev said: It's profitable; it engages communities; and it's about innovation. 

Moving from a linear system to a circular one makes good business sense for many companies. In fact, lots of companies are already adopting circular practices; they just don't always call them that.

For example, industrial giant Caterpillar launched a remanufacturing factory gear business back in the 1970s before it was hip. An oft-cited figure lending new urgency to the concept is Accenture's estimate that transitioning to a circular economy could generate $4.5 trillion in new economic output by 2030 (PDF)

Building circular systems can engage communities in unique ways, Sukhdev said. She pointed to The Plant, a former meatpacking building in an industrial neighborhood of Chicago, which now houses a dozen small food and agricultural businesses that use waste streams of companies as inputs for others (such as using beer waste to grow mushrooms). 

The companies that operate in The Plant are also an example of another really attractive aspect of the circular economy: It will be created and enabled by technology and design innovation. The circular economy will tap into companies that are developing new ways to reuse products, as well as the creation of new tools, such as artificial intelligence, that can be trained to maximize resources. 

That's a big reason why Google feels inspired by the topic. "Waste is a data problem. What if we saw stuff as information? This is an inspiring question to us at Google. We love a good data challenge," said Google's Brandt. 

The complicated world of recycling is already benefiting from AI. Recycling facilities in Colorado, Japan and Europe are turning to sensors, smart robots and vision systems fortified with machine learning software to speed up the rate of sorting goods and improve the accuracy of identifying certain materials.

While the circular economy is generating excitement in the business world, the problem that closed loops systems are trying to solve is also a little overwhelming.

"We have dramatically underestimated the impact of this material flow. ... We have a tsunami of plastics coming onto the market and over the horizon," pointed out the CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Andrew Morley, during another Circularity 19 plenary session.