The Roadblocks Standing In The Way Of The Circular Economy Dream – Forbes

As per the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a circular economy “aims to redefine growth” from business and human perspectives by turning the current pattern of resource consumption, referred by many as take-make-consume-discard, on its head, literally and metaphorically. In other words, a perfectly circular economy will contain no resource wastage and pollution. This ideal scenario can be achieved through endless regeneration of resources and limitless recyclability of consumables. The foundation, one of the leading proponents of the circular economy concept, has frequently pointed out the relationship between wastage of any kind of resources and the growing threat of climate change. So, circularity will not only reduce resource wastage but also slow down the inevitable threat of climate change and global warming.
As you will see later, technologies such as AI and computer vision in smart cities can play a significant role in overcoming most circular economy challenges and implementation barriers.
The Roadblocks Standing In The Way Of The Circular Economy Dream
Before exploring technologies such as AI, robotics and computer vision in smart cities for transforming them into perfectly circular ones, businesses and governments need to take a look at the barriers that stand in the way of the transition. Understanding the main circular economy challenges is essential before any strategies can be made to overcome them. The circular economy challenges, or barriers, are present at various places. Here are some such barriers that can be considered major circular economy challenges or roadblocks:
Building a circular economy necessitates a major transformation of infrastructure and operations in organizations in various sectors. Needless to say, major technological and workforce investments will have to be made for such a transition. Organizations will need to put into place the technology that can create circular products. Such circular models will need rare circular raw materials for goods production. As there is no precedent, businesses will not even know how much money and resources need to be invested in accomplishing reasonable circularity targets. Such costs can drive businesses away from pursuing circularity.
Apart from the high costs of secondary products and raw materials, businesses with a rigid and dated corporate culture may dismiss circularity as a high-cost-low-results exercise due to the novelty of the concept. Additionally, business executives unwilling to accept change may point to the supposed lack of consumer demand for circular goods due to their higher cost as compared to non-circular goods. The lack of demand is untrue, however, with customers willing to invest in circular products if they’re not much of a hassle to own and use.
Newly-started businesses need to break even before they can diversify their operations and attempt to overcome circular economy challenges. At least for now, the high cost of developing and producing highly recyclable products acts as a major barrier to achieving circularity.
One of the main drivers of the high cost of circular goods is the existing taxation systems, which may involve higher value-added taxes for recycled products. This may cause customers to possibly pay twice for the same product. In this way, occasionally, government laws and regulations can seemingly promote the purchase of “linear” goods and resource wastage for businesses and individual users. For example, governments and public bodies have stringent laws in place regarding food expiration dates. However, one of the lesser-known facts is that several kinds of food items are still consumable up to many days, even after their respective expiration dates. The expiry date on food items has more to do with the quality of the products. So, while the quality is optimal before the date of expiry, it can still be consumed after the date for several types of food. As a result, strict laws regarding food expiration usage result in large-scale wastage. Fortunately, in the case of the food sector in the US, several organizations are working towards addressing the wastage problem.
Government policies are perhaps the most stubborn circular economy challenges as no amount of technology or investment can enable companies to overcome them. Policymakers around the world will need to focus on making laws with increased resource reusability and environmental sustainability the topmost priorities.
Businesses and governments need to have the frameworks in place for improving the recyclability and reusability aspects of their countries. Recyclability stems from intelligent waste management. As you may know, waste materials have varying degrees of recyclability. To improve recyclability, the identification and separation of materials with higher recyclability are needed. Unfortunately, most countries do not have the requisite infrastructure for this purpose. As a result, up to 91% of global plastic is not recycled as per a 2019 study. The unrecycled plastic gets littered and is later found in rivers, sewers and oceans, causing clogging and increased carbon footprint across the board. More importantly, the high quantity of plastic in water bodies is one of the main reasons for the devastation of marine ecosystems. Several aquatic plants and animals—up to 100,000 mammals—are killed due to such plastic accumulation in water bodies. The lacking recyclability is a result of several factors, namely a lack of willingness and finances to establish circular infrastructure.
The circular economy concept works best when it is adopted universally. However, achieving circularity across the board is almost impossible as most countries do not have the financial muscle to accomplish the objective. Countries such as China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam contribute more than half of the plastic litter globally. Such countries first need to optimize their waste management and recyclability to reduce littering before thinking about overcoming other circular economy challenges.
Poor countries simply do not have the means to shred and recycle plastic goods to create products of similar or better quality to the original one. This is a major barrier as the quality of plastic recycling mostly comes down to the quality of additives, technology and expertise to extract the maximum purity and reusability. For countries to achieve optimal circularity, high-quality technology and expertise will need to be made available to all countries.
These are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to circular economy challenges. Apart from these, the hyper-magnification of consumerism in the last few decades has fostered a use-and-discard culture across the world. If circularity needs to be achieved, a massive cultural change will be required.
Smart cities, with their bevy of intelligent and data-driven technologies, are the most likely zones to achieve high recyclability and turn into circular cities in the future. A circular city is defined as a city that has made the transition from a linear to a circular economy. Such a city integrates recyclability protocols into all its functions. Additionally, such cities involve the collaboration of organizations, public agencies, citizens and research bodies to maintain circularity and long-term sustainability.
Technologies such as IoT, NLG, NLP and robotics are integral to the functioning of smart cities, and they will continue to be significant in that regard. The use of AI and computer vision in smart cities will be greatly significant for the purpose as well.
AI will enable businesses in smart cities to design, develop, produce and sell circular products. This can be achieved during machine learning-driven iterative product development. As you know, machine learning models can run through thousands of materials to accurately quantify their reusability and recyclability. The involvement of computer vision in smart cities makes it easier for designers and developers to find circular materials based on several visually-detected factors. All in all, computer vision, AI and machine learning enable businesses to choose the most “circular” materials for all their products.
Computer vision and AI are also hugely important in waste management, recyclability and reverse logistics in smart cities. Computer vision allows waste disposal crews and smart city administrators to identify items and materials that have higher recyclability. This allows circular cities to waste lesser resources and have lesser quantities of plastic generated.
The involvement of IoT, robotics, AI and computer vision in smart cities need to be incorporated and implemented in a way that circular economy challenges can be overcome and the concept makes a transition from paper into the real world.

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Connect with Chris Hood, a digital strategist that can help you with AI.

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