Let me start this article with a question. If you look around in your house, how many cell phones can you find that are not being used anymore? I myself traced four mobile phones, two of them sitting in a box from 10 years ago. Given the presence of some precious metals in these devices, I feel responsible for preventing their embodied resources to flow back in the material supply chain. The situation is more alarming when we consider the rapid rise in discarded electronics, such as phones, laptops, fridges, sensors, and TVs, that are not only contributing to a huge loss of resources but also containing substances that pose environmental and health risks.

In circular economy, we are aiming to maintain the value of parts and materials for as long as possible. This entails much more control over the flow of products to ensure that circular strategies such as repair, remanufacture, and reuse can be efficiently used over several lives of each product. In this regard, logistics and transportation operations play critical roles in the success of circular business models and the scaled-up implementation of circular economy approaches across industries.

For a long time, the forward logistics has powered global trade through the transport of materials, goods and information. And now, with our goal of advancing towards circular economy, the reverse logistics becomes more and more important to manage the return, recovery and remanufacture of products entering the economy.

This aspect of circular economy can certainly benefit significantly from the rapidly growing field of digitization, e.g., the Internet of Things, to enable seamless tracking of products during the use phase, besides facilitating return and recovery planning. The collected data can also guide future design and decision making to optimize the execution of circular strategies.

Needless to say that in a holistic approach, the benefits of logistics activities to circular economy can only be realized and maximized when combined with other strategies. For example, encouraging consumers to participate in return logistics may call for awarding customers for return, or adopting a use-based business model, in which manufacturer retains product ownership and customers pay for the use.

In addition, some of the challenges imposed on the logistics of circular economy, such as poor predictability of material streams and small batches, signifies the importance of collaboration and network building to speed up our transition to large-scale and cost efficient uptake of circular strategies.

Going back to the example of mobile phones and the resources lost when these devices reach to their end-of-use term, companies like Fairphone, based in the Netherlands, has built the business model and the logistics to recycle old mobile phones besides offering its own brand of cell phone that is more obliging to the principles of the circular economy, particularly repairability and remanufacturability. Such business initiatives are important and need to be extended to other electronic devices as a means to address the growing e-waste problem.