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Rethinking Waste Through Technology in a Circular Economy

FelixWith the planet facing a resource crunch, our consumption-hungry culture is quickly becoming unsustainable. The linear “make, use, dispose” economy depends on vast amounts of resources — and creates huge amounts of waste. According to “Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage,” 80 percent of goods in the U.S. are thrown away within their first six months of life.

An alternative that’s gaining traction is the circular economy, which aims to weed out waste through a regenerative industrial system. In a circular economy, waste doesn’t exist – all products and materials serve a purpose within the system for as long as possible.

The circular economy’s success rests on four basic building blocks:

  • A cradle-to-cradle view of materials that promotes a waste-free, efficient system
  • An understanding of industrial ecology and how to deploy waste as a resource
  • A commitment to including diverse players from across the market
  • Systems thinking and leveraging technology and data to find solutions

For the model to work, manufacturers, service providers, product users and collectors all have to be on the same page. Adapting to this mindset will require many industries to change, including the waste industry itself.

Viewing waste in a new way

Traditional waste management providers also own landfills and hauling assets, creating incentives for them to break the regenerative cycle and pile landfills high with trash. Waste and recycling provider Rubicon Global is disrupting the industry, however, through a new asset-light, technology-driven model that benefits businesses and the environment.

Technology can help to facilitate a circular economy by connecting haulers and customers in a new way. For instance, businesses can use Rubicon’s technology to request waste pickups when needed, instead of on a fixed schedule, eliminating unnecessary transportation costs and fuel consumption. Haulers bring the material they collect to processors instead of landfills, and Rubicon’s cloud-based auction site enables businesses to bid on the collected materials. By sending less trash to landfills and selling their waste for recycling or reuse, Rubicon’s customers boost their bottom lines while also doing good for the planet.

The power of technology

Gaining insight into sustainability initiatives is key for businesses that want to create successful circular economies. Providing customers with detailed pickup data enables them to track their progress against diversion targets and manage high- and low-performing materials. Companies can also use data to optimize diversion efforts and the frequency of trash removal, resulting in financial and environmental benefits.

As resources grow more precious, our old industrial system just doesn’t work anymore. To create a more sustainable circular economy, we as an industry must use technology to evolve, and enable businesses to fulfill an old maxim: turning “one man’s trash into someone else’s treasure.

Felix is the Chief Innovation/Supply Chain Officer at Rubicon Global. He joined Rubicon in November 2014 to build a comprehensive set of performance metrics for internal and external use. In addition, Felix is responsible for the vendor relations and negotiations with hauler partners.

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One thought on “Rethinking Waste Through Technology in a Circular Economy

  1. Thank you for your thought provoking article. As a long time advocate of Cradle to Cradle® design for a circular economy, I’d like to build on your theme.

    The actualization of a circular economy requires the application and integration of Cradle to Cradle® design principles. This is first a question of effectiveness, intentionally choosing the right thing to do, by design and secondarily it is efficiently put into practice.

    Circularity is much more than just “closing loops”. It starts by eliminating the entire concept of waste. It is done with a deep understanding of materials (both hazard and risk) in the context of use and next use for the product or service.

    Imagine how many products today are designed with materials that were never fully assessed for material health. So, simply collecting and cycling old products can inadvertently re-expose us to materials that were possibly questionable in the first place.

    Walmart’s recent publication of their list of chemicals of concern is the thin edge of the wedge of what I call “Radical Material Transparency” that is already on the horizon. The American Sustainable Business Council is actively asking people to tell policymakers to make labelling of chemical ingredients to be mandatory for household cleaning products.

    A sustaining circular economy requires Cradle to Cradle’s concept of circulating materials safely in technical and biological cycles.

    Anyone making a product or providing a service today really needs to understand at a deep level what’s in everything that’s in everything.

    Reliance on a Material Safety Data Sheet or a simple Health Product Declaration isn’t going to be enough.

    As you said, making the change from a linear business model to a circular one is now inevitable if we are to make the progress we need on Sustainable Development.

    Cradle to Cradle® is a Trademark of MBDC.

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