When going Net Zero, businesses must remove ‘waste’ from the corporate dictionary

Steve Haskew, Head of Sustainability at Circular Computing, discusses the benefits of remanufacturing technology to decarbonise business estates and help meet Net Zero targets.

The race to meeting Net Zero targets has somewhat consumed most industries in the past year. Whilst it’s an important segment of the wider sustainability agenda, it shouldn’t become a diversion from all the other items that need urgent action in order to drive meaningful change such as addressing the fact we’re consuming more natural resources than ever before. The global material footprint rose from 54 billion tonnes in 2000, to 92 billion in 2017, an increase of 70 per cent (UN Stats, 2019). All the while the majority of companies haven’t operated with a circular economy model, meaning a lot of what we produce is eventually going to waste.

It’s fair to note that recycling initiatives have gone some way to addressing our problem with production on a mass scale. The issue however, is that you can technically be a Net Zero business but still produce masses of waste, which is in itself a wholly unsustainable way to operate. Our planet’s resources are finite. The longer we allow waste to be a possibility, the sooner we use up what’s left of our natural world and the drive to become Net Zero would all be for nothing. So why is how we look at waste a problem?

The current approach to waste

The dictionary definition is: “Materials that are no longer needed and are thrown away”. But more poignantly, the act of ‘wasting’ something is defined as: “The act of using something in a careless or unnecessary way, causing it to be lost or destroyed”. Firstly, when something is no longer needed, why do we simply throw it away? And secondly, if the very definition of waste refers to acting carelessly and unnecessary, then we really need to change how we approach the subject.

As the importance of reuse starts gaining momentum both in the media and business agendas, the need to preserve resources and minimise careless and unnecessary waste has never been greater. Ultimately our approach to manufacturing new products and materials must begin to change with this movement, and it’s through innovation and disruptive technologies that we can begin this transition. So, whilst the definition of waste has previously discarded the value left in materials beyond their initial lifespan, we must now utilise the value in all material assets and look beyond the commercially outlined lifespan to pave way for the redistribution of resources.

Post pandemic business recovery is no easy feat, let alone stimulating growth that propels businesses to new heights. There’s never been a more critical time for leaders to reject old definitions and lean towards implementation of disruptive technologies that help the bottom line, whilst also meeting broader sustainability targets.

As we reframe how we look at waste with the aim of closing the production loop, we can begin to eradicate waste from the dictionary altogether. Our experts at Circular Computing suggested term to replace it with would be “next generation resources”.

Technology can lead the way

Singling out the technology industry as a focus point, its current model of ‘take, make and replace’ has created a mountain of electronic waste (e-waste), 57 million tonnes a year (WEEE Forum, 2021) in fact, heavier than the Great Wall of China. As the fastest growing (Statista, 2021) waste stream in the world, it’s clear action needs to be taken.

Yet the reality is, old tech products are not ‘waste’. The value in each old piece of tech is tremendous, packed with valuable natural resources and incredibly useful to future production. With supply chain crises around the world, such as the global chip shortage the abundance of old dormant technology plays a vital role in not only meeting demand but preserving them from becoming waste.

One of the ripple effects of the pandemic, and the shift towards working from home is the unprecedented rise in demand for enterprise level equipment. This, coupled with Brexit trade complexities, has meant that supply shortages are visibly impacting businesses. So as the world moves towards this hybrid working system, global IT procurement must keep up with the times, and a simple way of meeting demand is by utilising dormant tech. Only 17.4% of global e-waste (E-Waste Monitor, 2020) is collected and properly recycled but that alone amounts to $10 billion in raw material value. With an estimated total value of $57 billion for raw materials within global e-waste, the technology industry is sitting on a circular economy goldmine.

The challenge now lies in firstly changing perceptions about second-hand technology. From that of a hand-me-down, to materials that have simply come to the end of its original useful life to its current owner. But also the need to ensure second life products go beyond a simple refurbishment or repair to ensure they have a fully extended second use and minimise their overall environmental impact

The innovations making a change

There are now genuine alternatives to both the term ‘waste’ as well as to ‘new’ which are pushing the boundaries of traditional processes and challenging the discourse around second-hand devices. Remanufacturing is the process of providing a second life to a product by placing it back through the manufacturing process to bring performance levels back to its original standard. Most recently, our Circular Remanufacturing Process achieved the first of its kind in the IT industry, receiving a British Standard ISO 8887-211 classification which marked a massive shift in perception of second hand devices and a new era of opportunity. This disruptive process goes beyond repairs and provides a viable alternative to new, helping the technology industry create a circular economy where old products are saved from becoming waste.

With the rise of the Chief Sustainability Officer taking a more prominent role in the c-suite, processes such as remanufacturing are now being prioritised to help decarbonise business estates and help meet Net Zero targets. It’s an exciting time for the industry at large, with Apple committing to repairing old products without charge, to Samsung declaring they are building in sustainability to everything they produce; the technology industry is now primely placed to be a leader in the circular economy.

Replacing the possibility of waste

The reality is, if we want to challenge the negative and dormant connotations associated with the term “waste” altogether then there needs to be an alternative way of viewing materials and products that are beyond their initial lifecycle. As we reframe how we look at waste with the aim of closing the production loop, we can begin to eradicate waste from the dictionary altogether. Our experts at Circular Computing suggested term to replace it with would be “next generation resources”.

If the natural resources are in their first life, then next generation resources are those that have been given a second lease of life, and a third, and a fourth and so on. When such materials have then gone beyond their valuable use, they can be recycled or disposed of in a fit and proper way, not carelessly thrown away. In doing so, we create a viable circular economy where waste is but a fever dream, and the earths precious natural resources are preserved for generations to come.

Removing the possibility of waste will not only be good for our planet, but for business growth and innovation, with the opportunity for business leaders to now take an active and less passive role in leading this charge instead of waiting for government targets to dictate their sustainability journey.

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