The Circle of Life: A Look at the Circular Economy

July 09, 2019
By Laurie Toupin

The latest industry-based response to climate change is the notion of a “Circular Economy.” This concept transforms our linear process of production: make, buy, and throw away — into a circular one similar to that of the natural world.

In nature, living things spring from the soil, reproduce, die, and decay — transforming into soil, where growth takes place once again.

In a circular economy, whatever is produced is made from resources harvested from products already in existence. It is the global implementation of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

The concept isn’t raging across the landscape yet. But it has moved from a spark to a respectable flame as was witnessed recently at the GreenBiz Circularity 19 event where 850 professionals from 16 countries gathered to consider how they might make this a full-blown fire.

Two corporate powerhouses — Apple Inc. and Best Buy — spoke at the conference to describe how they are redesigning their business model to start the blaze rolling.

Apple announced in 2016 that it would use 100% renewables. It achieved that goal in 2018.

Then in 2017, Apple announced it was going to eliminate its use of mining altogether and instead use only recycled and renewable materials. At the conference, Apple spoke how it is making good on its claim.

Apple told GreenBiz that the company has been working on thirteen different materials including aluminum, cobalt, plastic, and zinc.

It now uses recycled tin solder for logic boards in eleven of its products.

Apple even created its own alloy so that the company can use fully recycled aluminum in the MacBook Air and Mac mini computer casings.

“We have to go material by material and close those loops,” Apple’s senior director of operations and environmental initiatives, Sarah Chandler, told GreenBiz. “We want to make but not take…Our ambition to end mining is as big as anything we’ve undertaken at Apple, and it’s inspired some of our most innovative solutions.”

Recycle and Renew

In a perfect circular world, all products at the end of their life would come back to the manufacturer, where they would be dismantled. Any biological parts would be shipped to places where they could aid agriculture. Mechanical parts would be recycled into new products, either at the original manufacturer or they could be sold and used by a company in a completely different market.

Best Buy kicked off its circular campaign in 2009 with this exact goal. It began a parking-lot electronics take-back program for the purpose of recycling. Ten years later, the idea has exploded into a complex operation, which spans all of its retail sites and even offers in-home pick up. Today, the retailer has collected 2 billion pounds of old PCs, cables, TVs and other electronics.

Best Buy and Apple also announced a partnership which opens the door for Best Buy stores to offer Apple-certified product repair services. The move greatly expands consumer options. In addition to Apple’s 272 storefronts, consumers will have the choice to visit more than 1,000 Best Buy stores.

The idea is to get people to fix, rather than throw away their devices; keeping the product in circulation longer.

Not an Easy Shift

Reshaping the economy into a circular one isn’t easy. Such an endeavor tears down the existing infrastructure and adds another, often expensive dimension to production. It is a massive paradigm shift.

This doesn’t involve just one manufacturer changing production habits. Rather it is about interconnecting supply chains, markets, vendors, and consumers.

To paraphrase from an Ellen MacArthur Foundation video, “Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy,” a circular economy would allow a company to proudly claim “No natural resources were harmed in the making of this product.

Isn’t it time your company joined the circle?

Author

Laurie Toupin