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Looking Past Linear: Making Progress Towards Circular Economy Goals

Insights from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group's Energy and Sustainability Summit

June 7th, 2018

If you live in Northern California and have time to attend only one sustainability conference each year, then I recommend choosing the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s (SVLG) Energy and Sustainability Summit, held each year at Oracle’s headquarters in Redwood City. The Summit draws both corporate and governmental leaders who are driving innovative and wide-reaching environmental, social, transportation, and policy initiatives–-including the future of meaningful work, the end of the internal combustion engine, and the rise of distributed energy.

Bringing Circular Economy to Life

That’s why I was particularly pleased when the SVLG invited me to lead a panel presentation on eco-design and the Circular Economy at the May 2018 Energy and Sustainability Summit. I assembled a panel comprising sustainability thought leaders at Flex, HP, Oracle, and Surplus Service to discuss “Vision, Progress, and Roadmap for Eco-Design and the Circular Economy.”

Using diverse real-world case studies, we wanted the audience to readily understand how the Circular Economy’s product design, material sources, logistics, and business models are different from today’s linear economy, and motivate them to progress along the roadmap toward circularity.

Pamela Gordon and the Panelists

 The “Designing a More Sustainable Future: Vision, Progress, and Roadmap for Eco-Design and the Circular Economy” panelists
 

Insights into Corporate Circularity Initiatives

I tapped audience volunteers to extemporaneously act out and discern the linear and circular economies, then introduced the panelists and their case studies.

Thomas Calderwood, Director of Reverse Supply-Chain for Oracle, outlined how Oracle develops and manages an entire portfolio of different material sources and channels for reuse, while recycling any materials that fall out. He encouraged companies to take the long view, considering what customers will do with their product years after purchase, and clarified that sustainability is never “someone else’s job,” as all portions of the value chain have a role to play. Thomas called out eco-design, education, and broad thinking as critical Circular Economy enablers going forward. 

Bruce Klafter, VP of Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility for Flex, underscored that the linear economy cannot last (due to, among other factors, electronic waste build-up and finite raw material availability) so turning to circular solutions is a necessity. He recommended viewing a product lifecycle as a whole in order to determine what design elements would make it easier to keep materials in circulation, and reminded the audience that companies can enlist their manufacturing suppliers to help facilitate reuse and recycling.

Lou Ramondetta, President of Surplus Service, made a strong case for reuse above recycling, talking about how many product repairs are surprisingly simple and can drastically extend the lifecycle of a product. He also walked the audience through a packaging analysis to determine the path to creating the least amount of non-economical scrap, and discussed the impact of China’s recent decision to no longer accept plastic waste from other countries, forcing companies to look for other solutions.

Dr. Judy Glazer, Global Head of Sustainability and Product Compliance for HP Inc., explained the infrastructure HP uses in which Haiti residents collect and process discarded plastic bottles, yielding income for the workers and a material source for HP ink cartridges. Economic benefits from this approach included increased printer sales, savings in direct material, and diverting millions of kilos of plastic waste (in year one alone). She too touched on repair as a tactic, talking about how 3D printing can create spare parts to keep products in use longer, economically.

Following the case studies, I pointed to the EU’s and iNEMI’s Circular Economy roadmaps.

Striving for Circularity Together

As worldwide leaders notice the shift from a linear economy to a circular one, collaborative efforts like these, which offer a space to develop goals and listen to other companies’ progress, will become even more important. SVLG Senior Vice President Environment and Energy Mike Mielke, who runs the Summit, offered this vote of confidence: “The conversation last week was both important and engaging. I see this as part of an ongoing discussion as we all grapple with increasing demands for sustainability in a resource-constrained world. In that vein, I hope we can continue our dialogue together.”

Want more? View the recording of the panel or read about Antea Group’s Circular Economy services

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