How the Internet of Things can unlock circular business models


Ambient Internet of Things

The Internet of Things can remove a lot of friction in deposit return schemes and recycling collections by solving the problem of relying on consumers to adapt their behaviour, Antony Yousefian believes.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an often misunderstood technology that could be the key innovation that enables a circular economy. Circular Online spoke to Antony Yousefian, Vice President of Climate & Circularity at Wiliot, a start-up company that develops IoT technology for supply chains, to understand the potential impact of this technology on the sector.

Wiliot, whose investors include Amazon and Samsung Venture Investment Corporation, told us about various examples of its ambient IoT technology supporting organisations across a wide range of sectors. One of the first use cases was for COVID-19 vaccinations with the technology giving producers visibility of the temperature and dilution of the vaccine.

What is ambient IoT?

Ambient Internet of Things

Ambient IoT is a network of interconnected devices that continuously collect information from the environment and exchange data.

“Ambient IoT means everything in our environment is intelligent and connected or communicating to the internet,” Yousefian told us. “An example is my wallet. It has an IoT Pixel attached that Wiliot developed.

“IoT Pixels, which cost pennies and are battery-less, not only track where my wallet is but they can sense the environment, including the temperature. Wiliot has built algorithms to understand what IoT Pixels are seeing. If the entire environment is coated with these tags or similar technology, this creates an ambient environment that is fully connected.”

Wiliot Antony Yousefian
Antony Yousefian, Vice President of Climate & Circularity at Wiliot.

Wiliot uses Bluetooth technology so doesn’t require potentially expensive physical infrastructure to operate. Yousefian said any connected devices can access the cloud, where the data gathered by the tags is stored. It works similarly to a roaming network, Yousefian said, describing it as “frictionless”.

Yousefian said he has been at the coalface of a lot of sustainability work in the food industry. As he explained: “Understanding your environment has always been a challenge in the food system from the beginning of the supply chain when crops first begin growing.”

Ambient IoT technology allows organisations working with food to not only track the products but also the environment it’s stored in, whether it’s hot or cold, and how people interact with the product. Yousefian explained users were able to optimise their environments based on this previously unavailable data.

When Yousefian was introduced to this technology 18 months ago he said he couldn’t believe the possibilities and how little it cost to implement ambient IoT. So, now, as Yousefian said, this technology has been “commoditised” and is more accessible, how can it unlock circular business models?

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How IoT can unlock circular business models

Technology circular

Circularity aims for every material to be treated as a resource. To be utilised rather than treated as a waste to be thrown away. Packaging is reusable, products are more durable and repairable, and the end-of-life is considered for all materials to ensure nothing ever goes to waste. Ultimately, the circular economy works to reduce consumption.

Ambient IoT has the potential to enable organisations to track the entire lifecycle of their products. This improves traceability, so items can be more easily recovered and reused. The tech can also give insights into how people interact with a product and the environmental conditions it’s stored in.

Having this data can help designers improve a product’s durability; reducing consumption by increasing a product’s lifespan. But how close is this to becoming a reality?

A visibility platform lets the user learn where their items are, which solves a chronic problem within supply chains. Yousefian said this is where Wiliot is actively being deployed down to the product level to ensure maximum traceability. The IoT Pixel allows each product to communicate data at all times as all information is continuously streamed.

In a few years with the rollout of 6G, any connected device can communicate with the tag.

Currently, Wiliot’s business model requires them to charge customers to analyse the data they want from their tags because of the technology’s low cost. This data includes the temperature the product is being stored, how often it’s used, and where it is on its journey from the distribution centre to the shelf.

One use case Yousefian revealed was how Wiliot’s tags allowed a client to track the carbon footprint of an individual vegetable from farm to fork.

“We were able to track the journey of the product from being picked in a field to the shelf in a store. You could see the exact route that specific product had taken, which gives you the primary data to measure its carbon footprint.”

This wasn’t possible before as businesses relied on humans to scan a product to trace its location. Yousefian said this has historically led to “very poor” visibility.

“We’ve had humans scanning things to gather data on when and where something has entered an area. This has created many errors as humans are not perfect and there are all sorts of different choke points in the system where visibility can be lost.

We were able to track the journey of the product from being picked in a field to the shelf in a store.

“Bluetooth is everywhere, from phones and laptops to cars. It doesn’t require expensive physical infrastructure or someone to scan a QR code. In a few years with the rollout of 6G, any connected device can communicate with the tag.

“Anyone could use their smartphone to pool the data from a tag and transfer it to Wiliot’s cloud. Wiliot aims is to enable zero-cost infrastructure. Today, customers must use bridges to relay the data to a Wi-Fi point to collect the data, which can cost around $30 to $40.”

This removes the need for expensive infrastructure, which Yousefian said is a friction point for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems that use tags and readers.

The role of IoT in digital deposit return schemes

Ambient Internet of Things

Wiliots’ IoT Pixels act as a unique, encrypted digital identifier. The Bluetooth-powered sensors allow users to track exactly where a product is and how it is utilised. As Wiliot’s tags cost pennies, Yousefian said the IoT technology can bridge the biggest gap in the journey to a circular economy: visibility.

IoT Pixels enable users to view products from the supply chain to the shelf to the home and through the disposal process to the recycling centre. IoT makes this tracking process simple because it removes the need for QR codes and manual scanning.

Once this technology is able to be embedded directly into a product, what potential does it have in the waste and resource space?

England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are set to implement a deposit return scheme (DRS) from October 2025. Retailers that sell in-scope products will be obligated to operate as return points where consumers can redeem their deposits. Large online retailers will be required to provide a takeback service.

A digital deposit return scheme (DDRS) could give consumers more flexibility in how they return in-scope items. Using an app, consumers can scan a unique QR code with their smartphone, return the item in their home recycling bin, and redeem their deposit through the app. IoT technology potentially makes a DDRS more achievable and cost-effective.

When people are having to scan items you know there’s going to be an impact on return rates.

Yousefian explained that IoT automates the return process in a DDRS. Humans wouldn’t need to scan an item either before returning it through their recycling bin or when it arrives at a recycling centre.

“When people are having to scan items you know there’s going to be an impact on return rates. IoT gives you visibility over every in-scope item in a DDRS,” Yousefian said.

“We’re currently doing this work inside stores by giving retailers the data of when a box of products has been stored on a delivery truck or when packaging is disposed of – down to the exact moment it is put into the bin.

“I’m really keen to start exploring the areas around DDRS as I think IoT can remove a lot of the friction in any potential scheme and solve the problem of relying on consumers adapting their behaviour. We don’t have to rely on consumers scanning items, IoT allows us to see behaviours without consumers doing a thing.”

A scalable DDRS that uses IoT technology would automatically redeem deposits once a product has reached a recycling centre, according to Yousefian. It eliminates the need for return points in stores, a big point of friction for retailers with potential schemes, and reduces the burden on consumers.

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