Fit for purpose and fit for the planet

Fit for purpose and fit for the planet

July 17, 2019
World Economic Forum & Accenture Strategy

A recent World Economic Forum report produced in collaboration with leading sustainability consultant Accenture Strategy looks at the importance of circularity in electronics and packaging as well as why the ‘take-make-waste’ model should now be consigned to the past

It now requires the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to replenish the resources consumed and absorb the pollution generated by consumer goods suppliers. At this rate, by 2050, three planet Earths will be needed. Current ‘take-make-waste’ linear production and consumption models are not sustainable. They must give way to more circular systems – in which materials flow ‘within’ rather than ‘through’ our global economy.

The consumer electronics and plastics packaging industries could make a positive impact with a more circular approach to goods production. If they do, they can help unlock a global growth potential of US$4.5 trillion, and address the environmental challenges inherited from previous industrial revolutions – from climate change to water scarcity.

Digital innovation brings solutions
Fortunately, the Fourth Industrial Revolution – rooted in digital technologies – presents an exciting opportunity to change the way we source, manage and value our resources. As quickly increasing technological performance redefines what is possible, exponentially decreasing costs define what is feasible. The art of the possible has changed.

Accenture and Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), a public‑private collaboration and project accelerator hosted by the World Economic Forum, focused on the digital opportunities within reach. They identified:

  • Five shared challenges that must be overcome so circular value chains in these sectors can become a reality;
  • Nearly 20 solutions that show promise for innovation and sustainability;
  • Five conditions that must exist to optimize for impact at scale.

Five challenges to sustainability

  1. In today’s opaque value chains, a lack of transparency on material origin, content, condition and destination create a barrier to improved sustainability. In consumer electronics, only 21% of countries collect statistics on e‑waste, often reporting metrics that are incompatible. In a consumer survey on plastic packaging, 34% of respondents named lack of information as the most common barrier to plastic recycling.
  2. Companies continue to use linear product design. Circular design alternatives are often not understood, considered or contextualized. More than 80% of a product’s environmental impact is influenced during the design process, but today’s product designs are increasingly complex – integrated for low cost and high performance, not sustainability.
  3. It is difficult to develop viable circular business models in today’s linear systems. We call that linear lock-in. Current infrastructure makes it hard to ascertain the condition and value of used products.
  4. Inefficient waste collection and reverse logistics hinder economies of scale. In consumer electronics, 80% of global e‑waste is not documented for recycling, and is most likely landfilled, traded or processed informally. Plastic packaging recovery rates in high‑income countries are relatively high, but recycling rates are much lower. In 2016, the EU’s recovery rate was 74.2%; its recycling rate was 42.4%.
  5. Today’s insufficient sorting and pre-processing infrastructure are an issue. For high-quality material recovery, waste streams must be separated into homogenous material streams. Today, those streams are often cross‑contaminated. Without economies of scale, the process is expensive.

Innovative solutions for sustainability: a sampling
Blockchain can help consumer electronics and plastics packaging companies embed transparency into a product. Information on product origin, contents and condition can be communicated securely to selected value chain players via a digital product passport that travels with the product throughout the chain.

Machine vision and robotics enable hyper-intelligent sorting of plastic waste. Machine vision solutions can combine a camera, an AI algorithm and a robotic arm to pick waste off a conveyor belt, sorting it by material, polymer type and even brand. Such solutions are highly scalable as the data it collects as it identifies materials can be stored in a cloud neural network to improve the learning algorithm across all installations. The solution can also detect contamination levels in plastic streams, providing valuable information on their purity and quality.

Sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT) can play a major role once a product moves out of the design phase and begins its useful life. They can help brand owners monitor and extend that life through remote maintenance, device upgrades and other targeted service-based solutions.

Scaling for impact
The emerging tech‑based solutions outlined here can deliver a circular economy at scale and speed, but require the right conditions:

  • Standards and regulation: standardizing material design, aligning processes and facilitating secure data exchanges are all essential for effective, efficient global value chains;
  • Change drivers like the right policies and taxation, targeted rewards and grassroots citizen action provide the tailored incentives necessary for success;
  • Data-enabled infrastructure provides the open-source interoperability and globally distributed architecture crucial for ubiquity, availability and use;
  • Scaling technology applications requires investment – both for-profit and public – especially in lower‑income countries, where underlying infrastructure may be absent;
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship require leaders to nurture collaboration, embrace disruption and build skills and capabilities.

Innovators are already building solutions around the new and emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To unleash their full potential to improve our planet – and a potential US$4.5 trillion in global growth potential – the consumer electronics and plastics packaging sectors have an opportunity do their part. It means moving toward a circular economy with new ideas and new practices – fit for purpose and fit for the planet.

(The full report, Harnessing the Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Circular Economy Consumer Electronics and Plastics Packaging can be read here)

E-Waste World Conference & Expo will take place from Thursday 14 November to Friday 15 November at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Germany. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email

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