CSR Forum Focuses on the Circular Economy

The theme of the 2017 AmCham Taipei CSR Forum, held September 28 at the Grand Hyatt Taipei, was “The New Concept of a Circular Economy – Creating a Future of Zero Waste.” The speakers were Vivian Tai, Dell’s regional senior manager for Environmental Affairs & Producer Responsibility; Gaven Chang, assistant general manager at PwC Taiwan in charge of sustainable development service; and Chen Kuang-hsi, senior manager for research at the Taiwan Cement Corp. The event was conducted in Chinese language.

Tai explained how Dell in recent years has spared no effort to promote a “closed loop” program to channel waste materials back into the production cycle to contribute to solving the serious problem posed by waste electrical and electronic products (WEEE). Dell last year was able to use over 50 million pounds of recovered materials in its production of personal computers, four years ahead of schedule, and has raised the target to 100 million pounds by 2020.

The company also aims to lift the share of recovered plastics from the current 11.7% of the total to 35%, and to utilize only recyclable materials in its packaging. An example is its use of bamboo and wheat stalks as packaging materials on the Chinese market.

Without sacrificing quality and durability, said Tai, Dell has expanded application of the “closed loop” program to 91 product lines. It uses recovered materials not only from its own waste products but also from external sources, such as recovered plastics provided by a treatment plant of the Wistron Corp. in China, as well as plastics collected by the NGO Goodwill Industries from 2,000 recycling stations throughout the United States.

Tai noted that the program starts from product design. Incorporating a modular product structure facilitates the removal and replacement of defective parts.

Looking ahead, Dell plans to expand both the volume of recovered materials and the scope, extending the process to include such materials as precious metals, which are used heavily in electronic products, and carbon fiber.

“Promoting the circular economy by increasing the use of recovered materials is an inevitable trend,” said Tai. “IT firms bear the largest responsibility, since they are the largest source of industrial waste materials. The volume of waste electric and electronic products is expected to exceed 50 million tons this year.”

Concurring regarding the inevitability of the circular economy, Gaven Chang of PwC Taiwan noted that “at the current rate of exploitation of natural resources,” by 2030 “we will need two earths.” A conspicuous example of wastefulness is the mobile phone. Consumers typically buy a new one every two years, the main reason for the staggering number of 30-50 million waste mobile phones worldwide per year.

Due largely to the huge and growing demand from China, international prices of raw materials have been rising at an annual clip of 30% since 2000, compared with 15-20% previously, said Chang. He cited the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s definition of the circular economy: “Looking beyond the current ‘take, make, and dispose’ extractive industrial model, the circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. Relying on system-wide innovation, it aims to redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimizing negative impacts. The circular economy is a continuous, positive development cycle.”

Chang said the circular economy will bring a number of new business models, including the renovation and reuse of waste products, recycling of waste materials, leasing instead of purchasing, and the sharing of products and services. Suppliers will stress the durability of products, making them suitable for lease over a long period of time, and consumers will stress the enjoyment, rather than the ownership, of products and services.

The trend will have a profound influence on industrial design, which will emphasize modular structure and the employment of single materials for easy dismantling/ repair/replacement and recycling.

The circular economy has also been gaining acceptance in recent years in heavy industries such as cement and steelmaking that have been under the close scrutiny of environmentalists. Under the concept of “environmental protection is a responsibility, not a cost, Taiwan Cement, for instance, has been promoting the recycling and reuse of waste since 1990, said Chen Kuang-hsi.

A key item is full utilization of after-heat at cement kilns for power generation and incineration of household and industrial wastes. “Power generated by after-heat now supplies one-third of the power consumption at our kilns,” he said. “Moreover, the after-heat, at 1,000-1,400 degrees Celsius, can incinerate waste entirely, without producing bottom ashes, a serious problem in the case of incinerators. Bottom ashes, which contain dioxin, have to be solidified first to stabilize their properties before being buried at landfill sites. Many of those sites have been almost filled to the brim, as one ton of bottom ashes can be enlarged to 50 tons in weight after solidification.”

Chen noted that many hi-tech firms, including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC) and United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC), have entrusted Taiwan Cement to incinerate their industrial wastes.

In cooperation with the Industry Technology Research Institute (ITRI), the company has also installed a system capturing CO2 emitted from its chimneys, with limestone as the CO2 absorption agent. The limestone with CO2 is then used in nurturing microalgae.