Tech and the circular economy Conference write up | 25 November 2019


On Monday 25 November 2019, techUK held a conference looking at how the tech sector is approaching the circular economy, with speakers from academia, consultancies and the entire span of the tech sector. Read below for the key points, takeaways and links to presentations from the event. Contact details for some of our speakers and further resources for additional reading are also available below.

Key themes and takeaways

  • The bigger picture. The circular economy needs stable macro-economics, the right incentives and penalties, aligned policy goals and political and corporate will.
  • Circularity should not mean no growth. To ensure confidence in the circular economy we need to keep the economy growing whilst reducing/stagnating resource consumption. How to decouple the link between growth and consumption should be front of mind for tech.
  • Circular by default. As the economy digitises and moves to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, circularity must be the default, not the linear model we have used so far. Designing for circularity is essential. The circular economy is made a lot easier if products are designed to be easier to repair, reuse and recycle from the outset. This lowers costs and reduced timeframes for getting the resources back into the market.
  • Servitisation is a huge opportunity. Particularly for manufacturers, moving to an as-a-service model helps build new revenue streams without not needing to sell goods in the conventional sense. While this has typically been the preserve of B2B markets, some tech manufacturers are beginning to roll out to B2C markets too.
  • Consumers are increasingly onboard. Customers (both consumers and businesses) want to understand more about the environmental impacts of their tech products and services and are more open minded about alternative business models than ever before.
  • Common standards and metrics. To build the circular economy and get scale there needs to be common standards, metrics, taxonomy, standards and definitions so all players in the circular economy understand each other.

What are the opportunities for tech?

  • Moving to service models. Servitisation means the technology supplier retains ownership of the technology through its life, creating an incentive to design circular products. It also creates new business models so the revenue does not end with the sale of a specific device but can be linked to additional services and support.
  • Using data. Better leveraging of data on the use and condition of products are key advantages as more devices become connected.
  • Materials within electronic devices have an inherent value. Some of the materials in tech are inherently valuable. It means tech firms adopting circular business models are able to recoup finances even when a product finally becomes waste.
  • Remanufacturing. This is worth billions of dollars globally and at least £5bn in the UK. However, more needs to be done to enhance corporate acceptance of refurbished and remanufactured products.
  • New business models. Technology is enabling older, more established sectors to become more circular in their approach. For example, using technology-driven data insights, the automotive sector can cut the remanufacturing process from 10 days to just three.
  • Resources not waste. The dial has shifted a bit, but not too much and there are significant market opportunities that will arise from the realisation that waste is actually precious resources with real value.

What are the barriers?

  • Volatile secondary materials markets. Unstable commodity prices and concerns over the quality, scarcity and usability of secondary materials means it is difficult to plan to incorporate recycled content in products.
  • POPs and quality of secondary materials. Materials containing hazardous or polluting materials cannot be reused, and businesses will not opt for secondary materials when there is a risk it is neither safe nor compliant.
  • Business inertia. Many business-to-business customers are reluctant to buy ‘used’ equipment because of an inherent bias towards “used” goods, so companies must offer cost reductions and as-a-service models to help overcome these objections.
  • Reverse logistics is a huge challenge. It is frequently not economically viable to collect small quantities of used equipment. Speakers throughout the day highlighted logistics, collections and takeback as a significant hurdle to circularity.
  • Cyber security and privacy. Businesses and many consumers have concerns that data on devices may not be deleted when a device is reused. The challenge for tech manufacturers is to help ensure that consumers know how data is wiped and have confidence in data sanitisation processes.
  • Policy challenges are not being met. There needs to be a single market for waste so that “waste” products can be easily shipped to dedicated sites for remanufacturing and refurbishment and specialist recycling. There also needs to be a level playing field between virgin and secondary materials.

Session one: External perspectives on tech and the circular economy

Speakers: Professor Paul Ekins, UCL; Dr Richard Peagam, Anthesis; Professor Fiona Charnley, University of Exeter; Owain Griffiths, Oakdene Hollins.

Sustainability is becoming the default due to regulatory shifts and customer pressure to understand the provenance of goods. Remanufacturing in particularly is gaining more attention.

Scaling up circular programmes in business is difficult, but worthwhile if barriers can be overcome. However, en masse, businesses will struggle to become circular on their own; system change is needed via concerted political action, co-ordinated policy, standards and cross sector and community coordination.

There is still an attitude of ‘waste’ not ‘resources’ in the waste management sector. Commodity prices and unreliable/poor quality secondary materials remain key barriers for companies wanting to use more recycled materials in products.

Incentives and penalties need to shift. Currently, local authorities, waste management and the business community are all incentivised to treat waste at the lowest possible cost. There are few incentives to invest in innovative recycling technologies. Further, e-waste collection systems are fragmented and vulnerable to fraud.

There is significant potential in using industrial IoT, AI, 4IR tech to support circular business models. Academics are researching how data can be best leveraged.

The lack of metrics and immature investment criteria is reducing investment in innovation in the circular economy, as investors cannot clearly see the RoI on their investment.

Session two: The manufacturing perspective

Speakers: Mateo Dugand, HPE; Daniel Quelch, Epson; Mark Dempsey, HPI; William Skeates, Sky.

Eco and modular design have a huge role to play in making products more circular, as it means products are designed for disassembly and that a broken component doesn’t lead to a redundant device. Some manufacturers are publishing repair guides and designing products, so they do not require specialised tools for repair.

Servitisation can mitigate the environmental impact of digital technologies by ensuring the management of assets remains with the manufacturers. This takes the worry away from customers, so manufacturer can ensure devices are used in the most energy and resource efficient way. It can also generate new revenue streams separate from the conventional sale of a device. Furthermore, it gives manufacturers a higher level of ownership of the device, meaning they can reuse, refurbish or recycle it more easily.

More tech companies are rolling out circular business models. Once the preserve of B2B markets, some tech manufacturers are exploring approaches with B2C adoption of leasing models at an earlier stage. In B2B markets, appetite is increasing: The environmental benefits of using refurbished product is being used as a sales driver.

When innovating in this space, large manufacturers are leveraging internal innovation teams, R&D spend and partnering with innovative start-ups and SMEs.

3D printing has significant potential for manufacturers, allowing parts to be printed in the community, shortening lead times for prototyping and manufacturing.

Having locational and cultural specific circularity programmes are important as the language that works in Asia won’t work in Europe or elsewhere.

Session three: Circular economy in data centres

Speaker: Dr Deborah Andrews

85 per cent of the impacts of data centres are embodied in the ICT equipment within them and servers contain many important critical raw materials, so material efficiency and recovery is important.

The CEDACI project is helping bring together the different parts of the data centre industry to develop a circular business model for the sector.

Complexity of the supply chain was identified is a key challenge. Limited design and final assembly takes place in Europe, so it can be difficult to influence these aspects.

Session four: How can software and service providers enable circularity?

Speakers: Kelly Price, Winnow; Fergus Campbell, Gumtree; Leigh Greatorex, Sims Recycling Solutions; Anthony Levy, Cistor.

‘4IR’ technologies such as industrial IoT and AI have huge potential in the circular economy. With so much data passing between products, owners and manufacturers, there are insights and intelligence that can be derived to deliver circularity.

Service providers offering solutions, not products have inherent circular economy advantages. By providing the solution, business customers are less worried about the specific products and are happy to not have that ownership. This allows the supplier to refurb and reuse goods.

There is a stigma among some business customers around ‘used’ products and one way to overcome this is by having the original manufacturer involved.

Companies can adopt an approach where they only procure goods deemed ‘circular’ and be bold enough to tell their customers and suppliers about it.

Data security is an essential point as it is a significant reason consumers and businesses keep hold of old ICT or prefer for them to be recycled or destroyed compared to reuse or supplying back into refurbishment and remanufacturing markets.

AI and other services are being used to deliver circularity elsewhere, for example, reducing food waste by providing data to guide optimal production levels.'

There are several start-ups and SMEs developing new solutions to help legacy wasteful industries become more circular and overcome issues of poor datasets.

The online marketplace for second-hand goods has circularity embedded into the core of its proposition but it isn’t necessary a primary reason for people using it. However, used good sales are benefiting from increasing consumer awareness and by those wanting to avoid the guilt associated with buying new products.


For the tech sector the circular economy has moved from abstract theories to concrete action. This has largely been due to companies innovating with new materials and rising regulatory obligations at all stages of a tech product’s life. More does need to be done, but the direction of travel is very much towards more circularity and this will not change any time soon. There are also significant innovations in how digital tools are enabling circularity in other sectors, which shows that the concept of ’tech as an enabler’ is very much alive and well.

For anyone interested in getting involved in our work on the circular economy or wider sustainability activity please get in touch with Susanne Baker or Craig Melson.


Created with images by yokie - "circular economy. product is recycled. management concept." • airdone - "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" • blackboard - " Energy Efficiency Concept, eco-friendly battery concept" • ThamKC - "Stack of old, broken and obsolete laptop computer for repair" • Elnur - "Illustration of concept circular economy" • metamorworks - "産業・インフラ"