The Technology Headlines

Are you ready for the circular supply chain?

Are you ready for the circular supply chain?

Barry Kukkuk

Recent research from national geographic, reports that an alarming 8 million pieces of plastic pollution make their way into our oceans each year. Millions of animals are killed due to entanglement or starvation as the microplastics are ingested by fish and often block their digestive tracts or pierce their organs resulting in death. 

As a result of these alarming statistics, retailers are using their initiative to reduce their packaging footprint. New Zealand supermarkets have started their “food in the nude” campaigns, whereby all their fresh produce is sold without packaging. Pick n Pay in South Africa is piloting a packaging-free shopping zone where customers bring their own reusable containers. The absence of packaging means less cost for the retailer and a decrease for the consumer. 

With companies and consumers becoming more environmentally aware, we are seeing a shift from our traditional linear supply chain model to a circular one. By reducing our demand for manufactured products and embracing a reuse or recycle mindset, we can reduce the toxicity and volume of waste that end up in our landfills. 

Traditional linear model

Circular model

Minimize the inputs of resources and the generation of waste leaking into the environment. How to reduce the number of  raw materials used as much as possible and get every percent out of the raw materials with as little waste as possible. At the end of life, look to recycle, remanufacture, or reuse the product. Or, in the case of services, the ongoing maintenance of a product.

Companies need to relook how they produce and deliver products along the chain as the retailers and consumers will be insisting on more environmentally friendly ways. 

Here are a few things to consider before you kick off your sustainability project:

Circular Inputs - How can you change the materials you are using to ones that are renewable or recyclable, and how can you use fewer materials in the initial manufacturing process?

Product design - How can you design products to last longer, be used more intensely, or perhaps used in a sharing system? 

Process design - How can you make the product using renewable or recycled materials?

Circular flows - At the end of life, how do you recover materials or products so they can be used again?

Business models enabling circular supply

As a result of the circular supply chain we see new business models emerge to manage the circular flows. In South Africa, unemployment is exceptionally high, and there are no sophisticated recycling services in place. Unemployed people walk from suburb to suburb collecting plastic, paper, and glass, which they take to the recycling plants. They are paid per ton, enabling them to feed their families. On a larger, global scale, Uber is an example that  provides a platform to supply resources (drivers) only when needed. This model makes more sense than having a five-seater car in a garage that gets used to transport one person for an average of 2 hours per day. 

Enablers and accelerators

Systems and technologies that are designed and built to recycle or remanufacture. Technologies such as 3D printing, Big Data, IoT, and also different ways of thinking, like green chemistry. 

Start your journey - your business model

As opposed to restructuring your entire business, start with short term projects, and reinvest the benefits into long term wins. Consider developing your business model where you take back and remarket your products. If you don't take back your goods, you can’t profit from the end of life. You can decide what happens to your products — do you recycle, resell or remanufacture.

How can you get more value from your waste?

If you are a food manufacturer, for example, are you using every last percent of your raw materials? Are there bits left behind that can be used as a by-product for another product? Perhaps another business in a different industry has a use for your by-products. 

What can you do at the end of use stage?

At the end of life, what options exist for that product? Could it be fit for reuse or resale? If it can't be resold, can it be repaired, refurbished, or remanufactured?

Processing inputs

Look at your processing inputs such as water and energy, is this being brought back into the process? If not, could it be?

Waste Consolidation

Could you consolidate your waste with other companies in the area? This can turn a cost into a revenue stream as you collect waste volume, and by bailing it up, you would make it worth something to a waste buyer.


If you are in discrete manufacturing, what are you doing with your offcuts? Could they be used to build another product OR is there an opportunity to sell offcuts to other companies?

With the change in consumers buying behaviour and their heightened awareness to our environment, it won't be long before all products are sold without it. The challenge for suppliers is to find new ways to supply their goods and companies may need to reinvent themselves in order to be part of the circular supply chain.