Brice Bunner

2016 TED Talk Still Hits the Mark for Bringing Us Closer to Circular Economics


Image ©: European Springs IrelandTechnology has a knack for turning the ways we have always done things up on their heads, doesn’t it? For example: manufacturing. Up until now, the modern model of manufacturing has been to gather huge amounts of resources from distant facilities and create an insane quantity of products to then be shipped across the globe. Massive expense, and unbelievable potential for waste. Well, that’s about to change.

The real game-changer

Now, you may argue that Just-In-Time (JIT) processes and agile, lean processes have already been in use—and even that most manufacturers are as efficient as they could hope to be. And, you would be right in thinking that way, but what this TED talk from a few years ago hits on is that even the leanest manufacturer is still going about things in the wrong way.

Even the most advanced manufacturers in the world still ship product from a centralized location. And some even still source their raw materials from remote mines or forests halfway across the world from their main processing plants. This is the inefficiency that hinders a circular methodology.

Previous manufacturing models have been supported by lower economies producing for wealthier consumers. Now, with China’s standard of living being elevated, production overseas is no longer as economic as it once was. In response to this shift, however, many manufacturers have been moving to automated and A.I.-driven processes.

The next level, then, is to add things like additive manufacturing or decentralized facilities as a way to really lower costs. This will then allow manufacturers to add margin for the pivotal things like Extended Manufacturer Responsibility and sustainable design to completely solidify a circular system with these new, hyper-efficient modes of manufacturing.

The potential for backyard manufacturing

Domestic manufacturing can allow for more growth because it can be made more sustainable because it’s easier to create a circular system and cheaper to ship products. In our own city, we have one of the Nation’s largest Honda manufacturing facilities. Honda Marysville has been able to economically create a Japanese vehicle line on American soil for decades and with remarkable results—for both the local community as well as for Honda.  

But what if, as the TED Talk suggests, there could be a plant like that in every state across America? What kind of benefit could both Honda and the local communities reap from such an arrangement? And, more significantly, what would happen if the source materials were locally generated?

It should be no shock that obtaining goods from distant lands, or “right off the presses”, is no longer a sustainable process. But generating exotic materials, as in the case of manufacturing electronic devices, is not as easy as tapping into your local mining shaft. And that’s why reuse and recycling are so important to this scenario.

Reuse and Recycling completes the circle

By reusing electronic devices, for instance, we extend the life and limit the level of consumption we need manufacturing to support. And with proper recycling methods—undergirded by the margin localized manufacturing creates—companies can take the time to unpack the rare-earth materials from an older device to put in a new one. Viola! Circular.

There will still be the need for global supply chains, of course, for the first-blush of products, but if we can localize and decentralize the lion’s share of manufacturing, then this solution could be a huge boon to making our recycling processes and manufacturing infrastructure fundamentally sustainable.

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