Kienle: I expect more and more OEMs to join the concept of the circular economy  

With raw materials getting scarcer by the day and legislation tightening its grip on irresponsible market behavior, more and more original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are turning their eyes to technology recycling. And that’s a good thing, according to Armin Kienle, founder and managing partner of 4Square Return, a German group focused on legislative advisory and technology take-back programs worldwide. Unless we do something right now, by 2050 we will need 2.6 planet Earths to support our current level of consumption, he says. The good news is that more and more companies understand the business benefits of closing the circle through recycling, leading to a massive shift from a linear to a circular economy, Kienle states.   

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What exactly is this concept of the circular economy?

Up to now, the responsibility of the economy has been to create products out of raw materials and sell them to the market; this is where the responsibility of producers ended. Simply put, in the linear economy you take raw materials from the Earth, make the parts, then assemblies, then products, then you sell the products to end consumers and that’s it, the customer is responsible for the waste. What has changed now with the circular economy is that manufacturers don’t give up that responsibility. Instead, the the OEM’s responsibility is enhanced by his decision to take back the product from the customer, dismantle it into secondary raw materials which can be then brought back into the circle in order to generate new products. To make a long story short: OEMs are basically now tying together the two ends of the linear perspective, thereby creating a circle.

Why is this concept important right now?

Well, we know that in 2050 we will have around 10 billion people on Earth. These people will consume a lot of resources. If we consume at the rate we did from 2010 to 2015, by 2050 we will need 2.6 Planet Earths. This means that we have to find a way to use resources smarter and bring them back faster into a circle where we can generate more products from the same raw materials.

However, is it realistic that we can use the same resources forever? Some raw materials might indeed get a second or third life, but at a certain point you need to accept that they are exhausted and you need to let them go.

There are many methods for recycling multiple times. Metals are a good example: steel, aluminum, gold or platinum – everything can be recycled several times. On the other hand, we have a lot of plastics. Plastic is a bit different because it is frozen oil. As such, it still has a lot of energy inside and we can use that energy for other purposes. We also need to think about the CO2 emissions that might be released into the atmosphere and so on. But if we do it smartly, I think we can find a way to bring plastics back into the cycle as well.

Is there anything concrete that will happen on the market that might accelerate the changes that you’re describing in 2017?

I think that if we are together able to build a strong showcase for our customers, then this is the starting point for a lot of OEMs to follow this kind of outsourcing process. I think there will be a domino effect. If we get the first OEM on board and we get the meaning of this partnership out, I really think more business will follow, which is good for everyone: for our businesses, for our employees and for our planet.