Circular Economy

Earth Day: How 'circular design' can lower carbon emissions

An employee of Egyptian Electronics Recycling Company (EERC) works with parts of different types of electronic machines to be recycled into pieces of gold, silver and other precious metals at a factory in the Industrial Zone, Giza suburb, Egypt, August 26, 2021. Picture taken August 26, 2021.

Products and components produced through circular design last longer. Image: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Glen Robson
Chief Technology Officer, Client Solutions Group, Dell Technologies
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Circular Economy?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Electronics is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Listen to the article

  • Website traffic is set to double this year leading to increased carbon emissions.
  • Only 17% of global electronic waste material is collected and recycled.
  • On Earth Day, companies must focus on building circular design into the core of their processes.

Video conferences, online gaming, streaming and social media have increased exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic began. And with web traffic set to double this year, increased online activity could lead to a surge in planet-heating emissions. As mobile internet use increases steadily each year, electronic waste is also set to surge from an already massive worldwide growth rate.

Post-use technology products result in the fastest growing accumulation of waste in the world, having generated 53.6 million metric tons in 2019 – up 21% in just five years, according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020. Only 17.4% of that material was formally collected and recycled, contributing to toxic pollution in our environment and further accelerating the depletion of natural resources, which threatens to cripple our ecosystem within the next 30 years.

Therefore, growing, reimagining and accelerating our circular economy is crucial. We must act while we still have time to rethink, redesign, reuse and recycle our way to a better future.

Image: Geneva Environmental Network.

Taking a circular approach

To combat the climate crisis and reduce their carbon footprint, technology companies must integrate circular design at the core of their processes – reimagining product design, manufacturing and distribution to optimize resource use and re-use. Circular economy is a systemic approach to production that involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials as long as possible. Products and components produced through circular design last longer, can be reused multiple times and then recycled in a more efficient manner than they are today, ultimately benefitting businesses, society and the environment.

Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

It’s important to recognize that no single company can succeed alone. Organizations must first commit internally to adopting and scaling circular design principles, then engage with entire industries and consortiums to ease the environmental burden. Consumers, suppliers, governments and researchers alike should collaborate to identify best practices, listen to needs and support broad initiatives and ongoing momentum.

Dell Technologies’ membership in the Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP) is an example of this in action. Convened by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the CEP brings together leaders from industry, government and international organizations, and civil society to collaborate at a global level on an industry roadmap for circular electronics. Similarly, through the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) Leadership Group, Michael Dell and other global leaders, innovators and change-makers are committed to using their own position and network to drive change.

How to achieve circular design

The circular economy touches many subsections of the technology industry and demands innovation among companies across the board. Design itself can accelerate the reuse of products and materials, in turn reducing waste and emissions for the future.

For instance, closed-loop aluminum from hard drives that have reached the end of their lifecycle, bioplastics made from tree waste in the paper making process and increased use of reclaimed carbon fiber for computer manufacturing are a few examples of sourcing materials into PC production.

Similarly, video game console manufacturers and third-party sellers can refurbish pre-owned hardware, gamify sustainability, track the carbon footprint in video game development, promote hardware buy-back programmes and even encourage digital game downloads over physical purchases. Mobile phone manufacturers can improve mobile phone waste collection and intentionally develop longer lifespans for handhelds. Other alternatives in hardware design include refusing phthalates and other toxics in manufacturing, designating e-waste collection sites to control waste and recovering components by providing recycling subsidies.

Have you read?

By exploring avenues for accessible, replaceable and reusable components, manufacturers will keep more circular materials in the economy. Ultimately, circular design lessens the demand on an already disrupted supply chain. In times of crisis, this is crucial for the world economy to function properly.

Deloitte reports that a circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design; achieving circular design pertains to the optimization of available resources. Operationalizing this approach varies by the type of circular economy business model an organization chooses to pursue. According to Deloitte, these models include:

  • Deposit systems: Manufacturers take back their products and refund the customer.
  • Repair: Manufacturers offer to repair their products.
  • Refurbishment: Manufacturers refurbish their products and resell them.
  • Cradle to cradle: Manufacturers design waste-free products that are biodegradable or can be fully recycled.
  • Take-back management: Manufacturers take back the product utilizing reverse logistics streams.
  • Remanufacturing: Manufacturers remanufacture their product and provide a guarantee for performance.
  • Dematerialization: Manufacturers recycle or transform their product into either a new material or product.

Operationalizing circular design in manufacturing is a choice that depends on organizational goals and material capabilities. Dell Technologies’ Concept Luna is an example of how we’re pushing the boundaries of design today, driving innovation to reimagine, reuse and create a reduced carbon footprint by making components easily accessible, replaceable and reusable. Concept Luna allows our design engineers to embrace revolutionary thinking and radical experimentation, helping us identify which bold new ideas have potential to scale across our portfolio to serve our commitment to accelerate the circular economy and protect the planet.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

Long-term benefits of circular design

A transition to renewable energy and materials separates economic activity from the consumption of limited resources, instead creating a system that is sustainable for the benefit of businesses, people and the environment. Circular design reduces negative ecological impacts on the environment, while further securing the supply of raw materials globally, encouraging scientific innovation and improving global economic performance. As PACE reports, circularity can help us address 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions, while adding $4.5 trillion in economic opportunity worldwide.

Circular design stands to change long-held manufacturing processes that have negatively impacted the planet. Ultimately, success rests on the receptivity of businesses’ and leaders’ commitments to sustainability, and the willingness of managers and employees to adapt to this new method of production at every level. If businesses commit to pushing themselves and working with others to significantly scale adoption of circular design principles, our efforts will drive change and help us all shift to the circular economy. The time to act is now – the window of opportunity for our planet is short, but real.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Circular EconomySupply Chains and Transportation
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

5 critical actions to establish inclusive, collaborative and sustainable circular value chains

Tommy Tjiptadjaja and Maxime François-Ferrière

May 29, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum