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Digital infrastructure for a circular economy

May 25, 2021

This guest blog is provided by Circular Weekly and written by Lauren Phipps, Director & Senior Analyst, Circular Economy, GreeBiz, originally published online.

To celebrate this week’s announcement of VERGE Infrastructure, the newest component of our annual VERGE conference and expo (online, Oct. 25-28), my fellow GreenBiz analysts and I are dedicating our newsletters to infrastructure across markets in the clean economy. 

A circular economy is often explained as a new system that rethinks the linear approach to resource management — extraction, production, consumption and disposal — instead emphasizing the preservation of value and circulation of materials within a system. Equally important, yet often left out, is the unencumbered flow of information needed to enable this system. 

From materials passports assigned to the components of buildings, to smart labels attached to apparel, to materials marketplaces and cloud-based virtual platforms to house each of these initiatives, a circular system will only be possible at scale with the construction of an enabling digital infrastructure to track and trace products and materials through value chains and ensure their continued use and circulation. 

For the apparel industry, one such example is the creation of a “digital passport” for each garment, connecting a unique, product-level virtual twin to its physical counterpart in the form of a QR code or a hardware tag such as RFID or NFC. While the flow of information from a manufacturer to a consumer is usually cut off at the point of sale, a “digital passport” opens the door for product life extension, resale and end-of-life management. 

Early adopter brands such as Ralph Lauren now have an open line of communication to its consumers. As a result, consumers can access product information about take-back or resale, or instructions on what to do with it next. Third-party resellers can verify a product’s authenticity, circumventing counterfeiting concerns. And recyclers can confirm the materials composition to avoid contamination. 

Building on the operational or manufacturing efficiencies to be gained within companies, often enabled by the so-called internet of things and powered by AI or machine learning, a digital infrastructure in a circular economy broadens the aperture beyond the boundaries of a single facility or organization. 

“Systems must operate across institutional boundaries in a global ecosystem,” said Yorke E. Rhodes III, co-founder of Blockchain @Microsoft in the Connected Products Economy Report, written in 2020 by Eon. “Logically speaking, no single party should control or own the identifiers used to monitor the history of the product or goods.”  

For this reason, Eon partnered with players across the apparel value chain to develop a universal CircularID Protocol. Currently in pilot phase and set to launch later this year, the protocol sets a standard for the product and its various components to ensure the accessibility and consistent communication of information across 

With a specific callout in the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan, the development and adoption of digital product passports is accelerating. It’s an exciting area for both innovation and collaboration, innovation and collaboration, and I’m excited to watch it evolve and to see what other tools, technologies and digital infrastructure can enable.

Disclaimer: Guest blogs represent the opinion of the writers and may not reflect the policy or position of the Northeast Recycling Council, Inc.

 

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