Manufacturers must be ready for the circular economy

The planet’s climate is significantly changing owing to human activity'

In Summary

•There are six steps to embracing the circular economy.

•The circular economy aims to decouple growth from raw materials consumption.

Manufacturers must be ready for the circular economy in the words of Greta Thunberg, the world is on fire.

Nasa data shows the planet’s climate is significantly changing owing to human activity 1 including material extraction and use - which has nearly quadrupled in the last 50 years 2 - and the subsequent creation of waste.

This includes the 50 million tonnes of e-waste produced globally every year, 80 per cent of which ends up in landfill 3 .This simply can’t continue.

Action is needed fast.Understanding the circular economy This begs the question, what exactly is the circular economy? In short, it’s the complete opposite of the ‘take-make-waste’ linear model, which for many years has led to the production of single-use, disposable products.

This old economy gives little thought to the amount of irreplaceable global resources used in manufacturing, or the amount of waste produced, both during the manufacturing process and in disposing the product at the end of its life.

With eyes on a net-zero emissions target, and a greener future for the planet, a circular economy directs production and consumption into a model of repair and reuse, where products and materials are re manufactured and recycled.

Embracing the circular economy there are six steps to embracing the circular economy, starting with the sustainable sourcing of raw materials.

The circular economy aims to decouple growth from raw materials consumption and is based on three principles: removing waste; keeping raw materials in use for as long as possible and at their highest quality; and returning materials into the environment with a positive impact.

Then comes the design stage. Manufacturing in a way that fits into the circular economy begins here. For example, with businesses cutting down a product’s material content or making items easier to dismantle and re purpose.

The third step is to extend this new thinking throughout an organisation.

Manufacturers must say goodbye to outdated business models, while welcoming new technology and IT infrastructure into the production and manufacturing process.

The fourth step is to incorporate more sustainable methods of distribution. For example, 3D printers reduce the need for intermediate goods to be transported from one location to another.

To reduce environmental impact and transportation costs, files of intermediate goods can be delivered digitally and printed where needed.

Finally, manufacturers need to consider a new step in the life cycle of their goods: collection and reuse. This is no longer the consumer’s responsibility.

Collaboration is key while most manufacturers see the circular economy as a benefit to their brand reputation and profitability, the reality of transforming manufacturing operations is a significant challenge.

It involves substantial change, and the cost can be high – especially when it comes to adapting supply chain practices and balancing sustainability with the bottom line.

Most manufacturers can’t do it alone. They must collaborate. For example, last year,electronic giants including Cisco, Dell, Google and Microsoft founded the global Circular Electronics Partnership.

This is an alliance that maximises the value of components,products and materials through their full life cycles with a goal to enable a circular economy for electronics by 2030. 4

Epson also has a number of initiatives, including decarbonisation and environmental technology development, and is currently working towards a closed resource loop goal, in which its resources are used more effectively.

A truly circular economy is possible and imminent, but businesses and manufacturers need to consciously adapt to newer processes to ensure they get it right – it’s not just a box-ticking exercise, but a strategic driver that may require a complete overhaul of the entire manufacturing life cycle.

The writer is head east and west Africa at Epson

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