Smart Living | Planet

Planet | 23 Feb 2022

The Circular Economy: Everything you need to know

The ‘circular economy’ is one of the latest green catchphrases, but what exactly is it and is it achievable?

Tackling climate change is a global priority, but there’s no silver bullet to this international, multigenerational problem. The circular economy is one of the tools in the world’s green arsenal. It’s a pretty straightforward idea, but challenging to put into practice.

OK, so what is the ‘circular economy’ then?

Many businesses and industries are ‘extractive’ in nature. They extract natural resources from the Earth, using huge amounts of energy to do so – a process that releases carbon emissions into the atmosphere. They then use these resources to make products which are discarded as waste at the end of their lives. If the materials these products are made from are not biodegradeable, they simply pollute the earth – think of all the plastics in our oceans, for example.

In a circular economy, also known as a ‘cyclical’ or ‘closed loop’ economy, products which are no longer useful are turned into new products rather than dumped or destroyed. This helps reduce carbon emissions.

Isn’t that just recycling?

Recycling is a big part of the circular economy, but not the only part. Take mobile phones, for example. They’re full of precious metals which, when extracted from the ground, can command a high human and environmental cost. So it makes sense to recycle old phones, plucking out those precious metals for use in new phones.

But as our explanation shows, not everything in a phone can be recycled. Plus, no recycling process is 100% efficient. That makes reusing, repairing, and sharing materials and products just as important as recycling in a circular economy.

So what should we do with old phones?

Reusing old phones is a great way of extending their useful lives. For example, Vodafone’s Great British Tech Appeal redistributes donated phones and tablets to disadvantaged people across the UK who otherwise wouldn’t have internet access.

Vodafone Group Circular Economy Press Release Graphic
Click on the image to read the full Vodafone Group press release

Now Vodafone is going further. From Spring 2022, it is partnering with Recommerce to offer a range of services across Europe to extend the useful lives of phones for as long as possible: fast repair services; selling an even larger range of refurbished phones; and – when the time comes to retire a phone for good – flexible trade-in options as well as encouraging people to use recycling schemes.

Will this really make a difference?

Yes it will. Research shows that keeping a smartphone for an extra year can reduce its lifetime carbon footprint by 29%. Buying a refurbished smartphone instead of a new one would save around 50kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) and remove the need to extract 164kg of raw materials from the ground.

So for every million smartphones that are refurbished and resold, 50,000 tonnes of CO2 would not be released into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent energy usage of 6,000 homes for a year.

This huge potential is why Vodafone is reusing other electrical devices, too. The company has an internal asset marketplace so network equipment that is no longer needed in one country can find a second life in another. Since its launch at the start of 2020, Vodafone estimates that this internal asset marketplace has saved the equivalent of 1,250 tonnes of CO2.

The company has a target to reuse, resell or recycle all of its network equipment by 2025.

Why isn’t the circular economy the norm then?

Designing products and business models for the circular economy, where as little as possible is wasted and materials are reused rather than discarded, requires a big shift in thinking. This is always harder to achieve than it seems, because it involves dismantling and rebuilding the way we’ve done things since the industrial revolution more than two centuries ago.

For example, data centres – the vast warehouses full of computers that power cloud services – generate significant quantities of heat. This is an unavoidable by-product of their operation – much like how your home computer or games console gets hot after a long session. In most data centres, this excess heat is seen as a hindrance to the computers operating properly and to be dealt with by power-hungry cooling systems such as air conditioning.

How Vodafone's suppliers are going green, too

To minimise their impact on the environment while working towards net zero, Vodafone and its suppliers are revamping every part of their operations, from engineering waste to IT operations.

But some data centres make use of this excess heat instead. For example, in Stockholm and the Norwegian town of Lyseparken, the unwanted heat from data centres is being used to warm thousands of households. Closer to home, the excess heat from London Underground trains is being used to warm hundreds of homes and a pair of leisure centres in Islington, north London.

This reuse/sharing of something that would otherwise be vented away helps reduce demand on power generation plants, renewable and non-renewable alike. It required fresh thinking, as well as the willingness to stump up some investment in new infrastructure.

Devices that continue to receive software updates for years and can be easily and economically repaired are more likely to be refurbished, resold and reused. This already includes many of the products that Vodafone sells – such as the Curve range. But this requires forethought at the very start of a product’s design process, so Vodafone is challenging all its device partners to think about the circular economy from the start.

The green rewards are worth it, though.

Is a circular economy really achievable?

A completely circular global economy where every single thing is recycled or reused isn’t fully possible as many physical materials will eventually degrade to a quality level unsuitable for commercial use. But that doesn’t mean the circular economy isn’t worth pursuing – from electronics to energy, an increasingly cyclical way of producing things can conserve precious, finite resources and help slash all our carbon footprints on the road to net zero.

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