Closing the loop: embracing a circular economy starts today
Words: Chris Buchanan, Client Solutions Director Dell Technologies South Africa
The world is changing — but how it changes is largely up to all of us.
Here’s what we know for sure: the global population is set to grow to a total 8.5 billion by 2030. By that time, 3 billion more people will have additional purchasing power and become part of the global middle class, increasing their demand for products and services. And all of this will put enormous pressure on the earth’s natural systems.
According to the government website for the Republic of South Africa, ‘approximately 91% of South Africa’s landscape is drylands, making South Africa susceptible to desertification. Both desertification and land degradation are intricately linked to food security, poverty, urbanisation, climate change, and biodiversity and therefore are among the most critical environmental challenges in South Africa’.
So, how is south Africa tracking when it comes to taking care of its unique and fragile environment? The short answer is, a lot more could be done. According to an article published by Stats SA only 10% of waste is recycled in South Africa.
Not only in South Africa, but globally demand is only going to grow, and industries and governments need to work together to generate supply in an environmentally sustainable way. To do this, stakeholders across the public, private and non-profit sectors are embracing the concept of a circular economy.
A circular economy, explained
What if our products, our businesses and our way of life ensured that the finite resources available to us keep circulating while we manage our use of the renewable ones to ensure we don’t further deplete them?
It may seem like a radical idea, but it’s one that change-champions like Dame Ellen MacArthur have been helping to make a reality. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it’s both possible and profitable for our economies to move beyond today’s take-make-waste business model.
By keeping materials in continuous, closed-loop lifecycles, ecological systems can be regenerated and restored. Not only does this create economic, natural and social capital over the long term, but there are direct, far-reaching benefits for businesses: by some estimates, the global economic gains from material savings could total $1 trillion per year by 2025.
In this way, the concept of growth and prosperity can be decoupled from the consumption of finite resources. Even better, artificial intelligence, big data and the Internet of Things can further drive and dematerialise our economies, establishing innovative models that move everyone toward a sustainable future. This informs our philosophy at Dell Technologies.
Removing waste from our ecosystems
As our economies are currently built around a culture of disposable products and single-use convenience, a staggering amount of material ends up in landfills, waterways and oceans. And the technology sector is a major contributor to the problem.
Every year, 50 million tons of e-waste is generated around the world and has become the fastest growing waste stream today. And while many people make a sincere effort to dispose of their devices responsibly, only about 20% of e-waste is formally recycled. The rest winds up in landfills or may be informally recycled, often in developing countries by workers without training or safety equipment. Whether leaching from landfills or improperly handled, these materials have the potential to adversely affect the environment and human health.
But through a circular economy framework, companies can make a difference by designing products to be easily recycled, manufacturing with recycled content, and working with customers to take back products at the end of their lives. For example, at Dell Technologies, we manufacture more than 125 different products that include “closed-loop” plastics recovered from properly recycled electronics.
And it’s not just products. According to the World Economic Forum, 95% of plastic packaging is used once and then “exits” the economy, with a lost value of $80-$120 billion annually. Using recycled content can keep these materials circulating longer – and create demand for recycled-content plastics – while using rapidly renewable materials like fast-growing bamboo can create a sustainable supply. Globally, the packaging that Dell Technologies ships is about 85% recycled or renewable content
The concept of sharing is also central to a circular economy — the sharing of ideas, resources, best practices and processes. While it’s still necessary to stay competitive, there’s a shift in priorities towards collaborative models that deliver mutual benefits for companies, society and the environment.
To start, businesses are collaborating closely with policymakers to develop innovative initiatives and embrace restrictions on pollutive, extractive and non-renewable practices. There are also endless opportunities for companies to work with each other and nonprofits to create change.
For example, Dell Technologies and the nonprofit Lonely Whale established NextWave Plastics, a consortium of companies working together to build an open-source global network of supply chains that make use of ocean-bound plastics. Because of both the importance and the opportunity that exists, you’ll even see competitors working together toward solutions. In fact, Dell Technologies welcomed Hewlett-Packard to the coalition in late 2018.
Another key way that organisations need to work together to advance the circular economy is to ensure we are bringing out-of-use technology back into the supply chain. In offices all over the world, technology is being updated, leaving their predecessors sitting unused. If that technology is still viable, we want to see it put to use. And if it has reached the end of its life (i.e. not working, inadequate processing power, obsolete, etc.), it is critical that the materials get recycled and put back into the supply chain to be used to make new products.
As one of the largest technology providers in the world, Dell Technologies is committed to protecting our customers and our planet. That’s why we provide secure recycling solutions around the world that protect our customers’ data, safeguard their brand reputation and responsibly recycle e-waste.
Start small and build from there
We have everything we need to transition to a circular economy — but time is of the essence. While large-scale change is necessary, there are a number of ways to start taking action today:
Identify opportunities to create immediate change in your supply chain, manufacturing processes or product design — what unsustainable materials are you using most, and what are the viable alternatives?
Assess which alternatives provide the most value both in terms of business costs and the broader environmental impact. There are many options, but you can’t compromise on the quality or durability of your product.
Look at companies with a similar product or use case, and borrow key learnings from them. You can even embrace a collaboration mindset, locking arms with your former competitors — your entire sector might just follow your lead.
Consider new business models that help your customers manage the use of your products in a more sustainable way. Can you offer it as a service? Can you build responsible take-back options?
Always be cautious of unintended consequences, as alternatives can come with trade-offs that have negative, unforeseen effects elsewhere in the ecosphere.
At Dell Technologies, advancing sustainability is a key priority for us, and to hold ourselves accountable for driving measurable change, we’ve set a “moonshot goal” that by the year 2030, for every product a customer buys, we will reuse or recycle an equivalent product, 100% of our packaging will be made from recycled or renewable material, and more than half of our product content will be made from recycled or renewable material.
The future we’re looking forward to may seem far off, but if we’re going to achieve a circular economy globally, we need to take action now — and we need to take action together.