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Circular economy: recycling towards the future
In order to create a truly circular economy all aspects of the supply chain must work together. Often this can take a lot of time, complexity and cost in order to set up new ways of working.
At the moment we largely operate within a linear economy. We find and extract raw materials, including agricultural products, process and consume these and then throw our goods away. In order to create a truly circular economy all aspects of the supply chain must work together. Often this can take a lot of time, complexity and cost in order to set up new ways of working.
As well as the obvious environmental benefits a closed loop system can bring about, the system has the potential to offer considerable financial savings and improve the flow of goods and services. The McKinsey Institute2 has calculated that shifting towards a circular economy could add $1 trillion to the global economy by 2025 and create 100,000 new jobs within the next five years – a significant reward for creating less ‘waste’ during work.
Where has the idea come from?
The idea of a circular economy has been around since the 1970s. At first simply a conceptual idea, large corporations started considering the idea and piloting business models based on circularity. A number of firms have had success building their product base around the idea such as an e-commerce site built on the premise of a circular economy.
How far away is the reality of a circular economy?
It’s closer than you’d imagine. San Francisco has said that it will be the World’s first zero waste city by 20203, with a combination of financial incentives to recycle, new regulation, and community engagement.
A number of other cities are also on board with the idea. China has set up CACE4, a government backed organisation to promote circular growth. Scotland has also issued its own circular economy blueprint5. The European Commission’s commitments to a circular economy framework will also be hugely significant, with an expectation that the commission will introduce higher mandatory recycling targets and a landfill ban on all recyclable materials across all 28 EU member states.
Beyond that, the large economic benefits to implementing a ‘circular economy’ system have attracted major companies towards the practice – notably including Hitachi.
Hitachi’s recycling strategy
Hitachi has long implemented innovative environmental policies into its management systems, and has taken bold steps to integrate eco considerations in all of its business activities, pursuing aggressive proactive efforts to protect the environment. Part of those efforts was a focus on recycling – which in more recent times has fed smoothly into the ‘circular economy’ philosophy.
HDD motors require what’s known as ‘rare earth metal magnets’ to operate, which are typically found via extensive mining operations requiring large amounts of time and resources.
One excellent example comes from Hitachi’s rare earth recycling specialists, and their work on recycling electric motors from HDDs – hard disc drives, or computer ‘memory’ (Hitachi famously produced the world’s first 1 terabyte HDD). HDD motors require what’s known as ‘rare earth metal magnets’ to operate, which are typically found via extensive mining operations requiring large amounts of time and resources. There is however a second place to ‘mine’ rare earth metals from – ‘urban mines’ such as old motors and used electronic components, accomplished using innovative ‘dry’ extraction techniques (compared to older, chemical methods) – and Hitachi are experts in the process.
Hitachi can therefore manufacture electric motors, give them to their customers around the world for a variety of uses before finally recycling the used motors to produce more– a classic circular economy methodology.6
Hitachi Cable’s tubular economy
Inspired once again by Hitachi’s strong environmental policies, Hitachi Cable also chooses to base their business on sustainability policies, from eco-friendly cable for power and equipment applications to ‘thermofin’ tubing that markedly improves the thermal efficiency of air-conditioning equipment. Committed to achieving a sustainable society, Hitachi Cable is also pursuing a range of material recycling initiatives including everything from critical metals such as copper to the plastic sheathing used to cover wiring and cables.
Once again, not only have these sustainability policies benefitted the environment, they’ve also proved to be more efficient and have reduced waste.
100% of the copper and aluminium, and more than 90% of the sheathing material of ‘recovered’ cabling – not only enabling them to produce new cables, but also for a variety of other functions including roadside barrier posts, sheets, and pallets. The residue that cannot be readily recycled as material is even turned into RDF (refuse-derived fuel), powering the process – meaning one part of their business can benefit many other elements due to circular economy practices.
A new kind of innovation
Skeptics of the circular economy argue that consumers drive a waste society and that their constant desire for the newest technology and innovative products mean that a move away from rapid turnover of items will not take off. Despite this, many firms are choosing to see ‘closed loop’ circular economy inspired recycling as a different outlet for product and process innovation. Many are producing higher end products made to last or issuing innovative software updates rather than a change to hardware.
Organisations are also generating significant cost savings by diminishing waste and in some cases winning new customers by offering new biodegradable product lines or products made from waste materials.
Ultimately, its innovative organisations like Hitachi who will continue to lead the way in implementing circular economy systems – not just because it’s the ‘right thing’ to do – but also because of their clear practical benefits.