Are we about to throw away US$4.5 trillion of economic growth?

For all the talk of private sector efficiency, waste is at the heart of how companies make money. Beyond throwing away resources, or rubbish, they underutilise assets and offer shorter product lifecycles than they should. This waste is not only intensifying environmental damage and natural resource shortages, but it also is throwing away economic growth worth as much as US$4.5 trillion by 2030.

Perhaps the most interesting development is the combination of digital with materials technologies to transform the way finished products are manufactured - a coming fourth-wave of digital circularity.

A whole new world of synthetic, sustainable materials is being designed specifically for use (and re-use) in the circular economy.  For instance, Singapore's waste management company Tes-Amm connects seamlessly with its clients' manufacturing processes to help dispose electronics scrap.  It is headquartered in Singapore but operates through a global network of facilities, and it has become the recycler of choice for several large global IT and telecom companies.    

By allowing products to be manufactured in the same place as they are designed, and by using only the precise amount of material needed, 3D printing is already enabling waste and emissions in the supply chain to be reduced hugely, in some cases almost to zero. One producer of custom plastic injection moulders, for example, reduced its cost of manufacturing from US$10,000 to US$600 and its production time from four weeks to just 24 hours.

3D printing allowed for the local manufacturing of downloadable digital designs into physical objects, which is what Chinese company Winsun New Energy Co., has done.  The company uses 3D printing to print houses in less than a day using recycled material - at the cost of less than US$5,000 per home.

Governments and investors around the world now understand that the circular economy means a lot more than simply reducing municipal waste. It is about finding and harnessing lost value in all parts of the value-chain. Digital technologies are at the heart of this economic transition.

To that end, The Circulars is an initiative of the World Economic Forum and administrated in collaboration with Accenture Strategy. The Awards encourages the growth of the circular economy, as the programme recognizes companies and individuals that break new ground with circular practices.   

Companies of all sizes need to appreciate that this means far more than the sharing economy. It is the creation of entirely new business models based on the advanced generation and manipulation of data. The circular economy will be a digital revolution or not a revolution at all.

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