59%Of electronics are not recycled
$33bnEstimated worth of 3D printing market by 2023
$321bnEstimated growth in the sharing economy between 2014 and 2025
More about this Goal

Goal 12 aims to fundamentally change the way that we produce and consume goods and services. The Goal acknowledges that production and consumption of goods and services drives economic growth and improved quality of life, but that we must do so with fewer natural resources and resulting environmental impact across the life cycle.

Some progress is evident – the overall material footprint declined in developed regions between 2000 and 2010 as a result of greater efficiency in industrial processes. The material footprint of developing regions grew over this period but it is still substantially lower than that of developing regions. Roughly one-third (1.3 billion tons) of all food produced for human consumption is wasted – this represents $1 trillion at retail prices and 3.3 gigatons of CO2 emissions annually. The world generates two million metric tonnes of electronic waste per year. According to the EPA, as of 2014 only 41% of electronics are recycled in the US, even with legislation in place.

Technology in action

Digital technology will play a key role in addressing these challenges:

Business model and product innovation: Technology is at the forefront of enabling consumer behavior change via new business model and product innovation. Technology-enabled business models like AirBnB and Uber have expanded the sharing economy, which promises to reduce material consumption and waste. Smart refrigerators, equipped with cameras accessible via smartphone apps, allow consumers/users to check their contents while shopping – this promises to reduce food waste. Smart buildings and offices help users understand their energy consumption relative to their peers. As the cost of such technology declines, it will be more available to lower income populations.

Precision recycling: Technological development, like the application of AI enabled robots, is needed to ensure that all products, including those with nanoscale materials, can be recovered and reused or recycled. Automated sorting and robotic capabilities such as metal detection, weight measurement, 3D scanning and spectrometer analysis can enable more sophisticated and precise waste sorting.

Materials tracking systems: Blockchain, data analytics and tracking systems like RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips will be integral to efficient systems and reducing consumption. Improved materials tracking can optimize planning by processing user data constraints spatially and temporally and allow efficiency at the planning stages of construction and product development. Sensors and smart software can track materials through the disposal stages and limit illegal disposal of hazardous materials and waste. Big data analytics will be essential to ensuring materials efficiencies and designing for recyclability by aggregating information on how materials are processed throughout their lifecycle.

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Opportunities & Challenges

Doing more with less, and improving the quality of lives around the world, presents a number of opportunities and challenges:

Circular economy: According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy aims to move beyond the current “take, make, waste” economic paradigm to one in that is restorative and regenerative by design – where waste is designed out and products and materials are kept at their highest utility and value at all times. Making this shift requires a fundamental rethink of our economic system, along with new models of design, manufacturing, logistics and consumer engagement.

New business models: A shift from selling products to services, including sharing and leasing models, will enable businesses to grow revenue with lower material intensity and maintain control over the materials in use (which facilitates reuse, repair and recyclability).

Smarter shipping and distribution: Smarter distribution systems can streamline shipping channels and bring more efficiency and cost savings. These systems are expected to improve safety and environmental impact of shipping and port activities.

Recycling and recovery: One of the more pressing challenges in addressing waste and shifting to a more circular economy is the increasing complexity of products. For example, electronics are getting smaller and more sophisticated, making recovery and reuse of materials more challenging. Product designers need to consider how to create products with end of life in mind (e.g. fewer components), and we need to develop the infrastructure, policies and systems to support repair, reuse and recycling.

Technology has a lot of potential, from helping to inform product design to enabling open data and sharing for greater innovation. John Gardner, Novelis
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