This ABI Insight examines the Internet of Things’ (IoT) role in the circular economy and how the IoT can drive the reduction of physical and operational waste across enterprise and industry actors. The IoT hardware value chain, from manufacture to after-life device management, lacks environmental controls, leading to its contribution to electronic waste and resource depletion on a large scale. This ABI Insight looks at examples of existing models and initiatives that can be drawn on to minimize the impact of this waste.
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The great Marmite crisis of 2020, in which the company temporarily suspended 400g jars because of a shortage of brewer’s yeast, showed the company’s dependency on breweries and pubs for what is typically considered a waste byproduct. Further up the value chain, in 2019 Marmite’s parent company, Unilever, committed to collect and re-use all of its annual plastic waste (approx. 600,000 metric tons) by 2025 as part of its drive toward a circular economy. Waste reduction and shorter-loop supply chains are essential features of a circular economy, and if any technology can enable it, it is the Internet of Things (IoT). The premise of a connected world is to gather swathes of data on all aspects of organizational processes and assets. This enables increased operational efficiency, but can also reduce material, energy, and human waste.
Asset tracking is an important IoT segment that can help to establish closed-loop reuse models. From a physical waste perspective, asset tracking’s ability to gather data and enable strong logistics processes will play a significant role in understanding where synergies lie and optimizing closed-loop designs. The construction industry generates one of the highest proportions of industrial waste, but circular business models have struggled with scalability. In 2016, Loop Rocks (a branch of Nordic construction company NCC) started distributing waste materials from its operations at a lower-than-market-price. However, the company ceased operations by 2019, citing lack of institutional investment and bad timing—in other words, lack of scalability remained a challenge. Hence, asset tracking can play a role across all industries in understanding and scaling processes and synergies, driving control of physical waste products and lean organizational processes. Examples include:
- Supply chain visibility and condition monitoring can both significantly reduce wasted products and optimize the flow of goods between regions. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposals in 2019 and 2020 put technology and tracking at the heart of limiting waste in pharmaceutical and food supply chains.
- Tracking devices placed on skips or bins (sometimes augmented with sensors) can increase the efficiency of waste management and triage.
- Returnable assets (from trailers to pallets to pharmaceutical packaging to shared power banks) offered as-a-service both decrease enterprise Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) and ensure re-usability, limiting single-use products.
...And the IoT Taketh Away
ABI Research predicts the growth of the asset tracking segment to be 157 million shipped devices per year—using Wide Area Networks (WAN) WAN alone—by 2023; for IoT as a whole, 14 billion cumulative device connections (WAN and SRW) are predicted by this date. These numbers are extraordinary, especially when considering that approximately 80% of electronic waste, of which IoT devices will form a large part, is not recycled. While bringing about efficiencies and waste management savings at an enterprise and industry level through diverse application use cases and lean process mechanisms, IoT devices themselves will contribute to extensive electronic waste and a linear make/dispose model that emphasizes intensive mining, energy, and chemical resource consumption. Some examples of how IoT can contribute to waste include:
- Design simplifications often result in the minimum of a sealed case (challenging to dismantle and reuse), a battery (most frequently lithium), and semiconductors (challenging to recycle).
- While some devices can be deployed for up to 15 years or with rechargeable or replaceable batteries, a large segment of devices in the asset tracking market is targeted for short- or medium-term deployments (up to five years), or comes with integrated batteries, which necessitates device disposal at the end of this period.
- Embedding semiconductor devices in daily appliances adds to the challenge of disposal and recycling. Non-reclaimable devices can contribute to waste and the leakage of toxic elements.
With IoT standards focused on network connectivity, no environmental standards exist for the afterlife of the devices as they do for household electronic devices. Lack of recycling or reuse is no surprise in the IoT industry, where the premise of driving efficiencies is that convenience and volume are king. Industry does not want the additional cost and responsibility of managing an arsenal of devices that need regular maintenance, charging, and proper disposal, which can severely impact the business case of deployment.
Fix-and-forget models and single-use disposable trackers are growing market segments, key in driving volume adoption in a large number of use cases, and offered by Sensitech, Emerson Climate Technologies, and CoreKinect, among others. While recycling or device return is encouraged by Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and distributors, this damages the convenience aspect for customers, while the expensive device or semiconductor recycling or recommissioning processes damage the incentive for OEMs. In other words, companies on the manufacturing side as well as on the commercial side have little incentive (or capacity) to be responsible for recycling or proper disposal.
The IoT Will Regulate Itself?
The obsession with the reduction of device Bill of Materials (BOM) in many ways regulates the use of materials. Technological advances, such as the Integrated SIM (iSIM) standard or System on Chip (SoC), enable the integration of multiple components into a single piece of silicon, reducing the consumption of materials involved in mass IoT production. On the battery side, extending battery life through power-saving features on devices is key to multi-year deployments and reusability. Some OEMs (e.g., Roambee) are furthermore moving away from lithium; further advances in battery technology, while not yet commercially viable (e.g., printed IoT batteries developed by NAMI and Neosen Energy HK), will increase hardware sustainability. Until these are more developed, OEMs will continue to use various combinations of lithium—to do otherwise would limit device capabilities and competitiveness in the IoT space. Nanothings’ NanoTag is an example of an OEM asset tracking device placing this IoT-wide challenge at the forefront of its business proposition, with disposable smart tags manufactured from non-toxic materials. In-building sustainability into the hardware is a crucial step. Other models include:
- In the United States, Portland’s Smart City PDX department has implemented procurement procedures that assess the sustainability of IoT sensors to ensure re-usability; sustainability can be built into regulatory or enterprise/industry decision-making processes.
- Subscription models offered by Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and OEMs (Roambee, Mobilogix, Sony) will further help in addressing this challenge with hardware forward and reverse logistics provided as-a-service: by providing hardware on a subscription basis and managing all aspects of the hardware lifecycle, OEMs or service providers can control the deployment and afterlife of every one of their hardware pieces.
- On a broader OEM scale outside of IoT, Dell “mines” electronic devices at the end of their lives for plastics and valuable raw materials, often through private recycling enterprise initiatives—an important sector exists for the collection and recycling of IoT waste.
As the IoT space develops, so too will its governing standards. The above existing initiatives and models can be used as best-practices to ensure sustainability at all stages of the IoT value chain. Private and public sector opportunities and initiatives are necessary to drive the closed-loop reuse model, both at the IoT manufacturing/afterlife stage and at the IoT device deployment stage. This will ensure that the shift toward the circular economy is not marred by further waste production.