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Sustainable Living Q1 2023

How can digital tech enable a circular economy?

iStock / Getty Images Plus / kate3155

Julian David

CEO, techUK

Plastics, carbon, recycling; thanks to the shift in behaviour, these days, everyone has an environmental cause that they are passionate about.

While there has always been an eco-conscious segment of the population, growing environmental awareness and rising costs are increasing demand for products that have been used, last longer and have been made from recycled materials — a concept called ‘the circular economy.’  

Maximising product use 

Products with a longer life, lower environmental footprint and lower costs are in demand, and digital tech is going to be a huge part of the transition.  

One key role of tech is connecting buyers and sellers. They may not be described as ‘circular,’ but platforms like Gumtree, eBay, Facebook Marketplace and other websites are an important first step in extending product lifetimes and increasing access for people on lower incomes.  

This is further demonstrated by platforms such as Vinted, MusicMagpie, Nextdoor and Freecycle. There’s a huge market out there. However, quantifying it in terms of money saved compared to new items sold is difficult at present. We believe that there are many digital tools which could make this easier. 

Keeping things working for longer is a key part of the circular economy.

Lowering product costs 

Tech is helping manufacturers and retailers make products more recyclable, durable and repairable to begin with.  

A big barrier has been getting a reliable source of recycled materials to make new products with — which is why we’re excited to see all the innovations in electronic waste tracking, so buyers and environmental law enforcers know exactly what is where, which will unearth thousands of tonnes of material for recycling and lower the price, too. 

Product life span 

Keeping things working for longer is a key part of the circular economy. If an item can be diagnosed with a fault and rectified, repair is cheaper and more likely to succeed.  

Vodafone developed a chip that is inserted into an appliance and can identify and notify a customer that something isn’t quite right with their appliance and suggest potential causes — and can even turn a device off if there’s a safety critical fault or if the manufacturer issues a product recall. 

Tech has a role in delivering the circular economy. Much of it is happening in response to consumer and cost pressure, which is a welcome change in the way we live and operate — but there needs to be a more concerted look at how tech can make a real difference. 

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