I interviewed Oliver Campbell who discussed The Circular Economy.
It’s great to speak with you again, Oliver, and I’m looking forward to hearing your views on a new topic: the circular economy. My first question is: What is the circular economy?
Well, first, Dustin, thanks for having me again, and I’m glad to be back. The circular economy, really, it’s this theory that says that we can produce products with virtually no waste; materials are reused and recycled continuously. That’s really where the circular idea comes from. It’s a dramatic shift if you compare it to the current, what I call, linear economy, in which we take, make, consume, and dispose—you see that straight line—and we draw regularly on natural resources to create products that eventually end up as trash.
In short, what the circular economy is about is economic growth without an increased use of natural resources. I think that’s the key idea of a circular economy. It’s about resourced productivity. How can we get more from the resources we use, eliminating the concept of waste? We use things over and over again. What used to be waste in a linear economy now becomes a resource in a circular economy. That’s really the key notion around a circular economy.
“Why is that important?” I think is the next great question. I think if you look at economic development over the past several centuries, since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve had a linear economy, and it’s worked quite well for a very long time.
Why is it important that we shift? I think there are some drivers on this. Foremost is the growth of the middle-class and increasing world population, which is driving greater consumerism in the coming years. We certainly see this in the marketplaces we’re involved in globally. That increased population and consumerism puts tremendous pressure on natural resources and energy supplies. Therefore, the belief is a shift to a circular economy to build value, create jobs via new business opportunities.
We think technology serves as a great example of the potential for this kind of transformation. We also see increased urbanization. The global population, just to cite some numbers, is expected to increase by one billion people by 2025. If you think about it, a billion people, that’s roughly the population of China or India. That’s a tremendous amount of people who all aspire, really, to lives of possibility and potential rather than, I think, one of poverty and scarcity.
From a technology point of view, technology is often used—and that’s how we use it here at Dell—how do we use technology to help people be more productive, to help people realize the dreams in their lives?
Beyond 2025, we also see forecasts that show approximately three billion people will ascend to middle-class by 2030. We’ve got more people, more people moving up out of poverty and into middle-class. We think, certainly, more people whose lives are improving economically, that’s a good thing, but it puts pressure on resources. People want cars, air conditioning, electronics, et cetera, and that all puts a lot of pressure on resources. There’s concern over shortages and environmental pressure from raw materials. The World Economic Forum forecasts by 2020, an extra 82 billion tons of raw materials will enter the economic system. It’s also getting harder and more expensive to get some of these resources.
I think according to the Green Alliance, there’s 7 percent copper in every ton of ore mined 150 years ago. Today it’s around 26 percent. Those big, rich things of copper, to cite an example, are harder and harder to get at. You look at where we drill for oil and environmental conditions either deep see or the Arctic; it’s harder and harder to get at pockets of oil.
Those are some of the reasons from a materials standpoint and energy pressures, including costs, are on the rise. What we see from our longer-term forecasts—and I’m quoting the Green Alliance here—estimates over the next 10 years is that metal and energy prices could actually triple. It’s really, if you look at it from a basic standpoint of supply and demand, more demand usually means higher cost. To put it in simplistic terms, those are the drivers.
How can things be done differently in the supply chain? Where have you seen some success?
I think things can be done differently in the supply chain by looking at where we can recycle and reuse materials. What we’ve done at Dell with packaging, where we’ve used wheat straw, actually, as a substitute for paper fiber that’s sourced from trees.
About two years ago we launched a wheat straw paper packaging initiative with our partner YFY, and what we’re doing is taking the material that was previously a waste, which is wheat straw, where farmers in China would either burn it or, if they couldn’t do that, they would till it. We gather that, it goes into a process where we have specially designed enzymes to break down those fibers for suitability in the use of papermaking. We use approximately, I think, 40 percent less energy and about 90 percent less water in the process. And we get a paper product made from wheat straw that’s really the same in performance characteristics and really the same in terms of cost, but we don’t use a scarce resource, such as trees, and we avert the burning of wheat straw in China, so it can alleviate, I’d say, some of the air pollution and particulate matter in the air. It also helps provide an extra source of income for rural farmers, and it creates rural jobs. That’s what we’d call a quadruple win.
I’ll cite one other example at Dell what we’re doing in the supply chain. We’re collecting used computers, we’re taking the plastic, grinding it, and then recycling it back into new Optiplex desktops. That just started late last year, and that’s an example of reduce, reuse in a circular nature of the supply chain. These are initial beginnings; we think more will follow. In fact, on our roadmaps, we’re looking to see how we can increase the use of these types of technologies.
Thanks. Can you provide a brief background of yourself?
Sure. I grew up in the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. We probably had more cows than we did people, and I was always very much influenced by the natural environment. I worked on farms growing up and worked with animals and enjoyed the natural environment. Naturally, as a kid, you never appreciate the things that you have; it was only when I moved away that I realized what a great environment I had. That’s one of the reason I think that motivates me to do some of the work that I do: so others can experience the natural world in a way that I experienced it.
Educationally, for those of your students and other listeners, I have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in agricultural and biological engineering from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I also have a master’s of business degree from the University of Texas in Austin. I guess that kind of makes me a bit of an Ivy League cowboy. It’s been a combination that’s served me very well.
Professionally, I have work experience for Ford Motor Company—the automotive industry—as well as aerospace, a little bit of time in government, and then here at Dell about the past 15 years. That’s a bit of my background.
Thanks, today, for sharing your views on this topic. I look forward to staying in touch and following up with new topics you’d like to talk about in the future.
Okay, wonderful, Dustin. Thank you very much.
About Oliver Campbell
Director Procurement & Innovation Leader at Dell