The current economy is built on waste—dig up some materials, turn that into a product, ship it to an "end user" who eventually tosses it in the trash. But that's starting to change.
Google is one of the latest mega-corporations to commit to the principles of a circular economy—one that keeps "technical nutrients" like plastic and silicon out of the landfill, and trims out wasted water, energy, food, and land.
"Our goal is to embed circular economic principles into the fabric of Google’s infrastructure, operations, and culture," says Kate Brandt, Google's sustainability lead. "What that means is that we'll be focusing on opportunities wherever possible to eradicate waste through smart design—at our data centers, in our kitchens, on our campuses, in all we do around the world."
In some ways, these are things the tech giant has already been working on; the company has repurposed hundreds of thousands of servers instead of replacing them, for example, and experimented with data centers that reuse wastewater from sewage treatment plants.
But now Google wants to go further. In a new partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit that helps companies transition to the circular economy, they plan to go big. "The way that they'll work with us is to really understand the business and then understand how circularity can be applied to take the efforts to the next level," Brandt says. The company will choose two flagship projects to work on over the next year.
"We think our infrastructure, our operations, and our culture are all places where we can really embed this and really innovate," she says.
Eventually, it's possible they'll build tools for others trying to eliminate waste. "We're a company that has solved hard challenges on a global scale, driving every road and mapping it, putting every book online for free," Brandt says. "We get excited about these challenges that ultimately make people's lives better and that we can apply some of our Google skills to, and so that's what's exciting to us about circularity."
"The technology revolution is a key enabler of the shift towards a regenerative circular economy," says Ellen MacArthur. "Google’s commitment to circular economy innovation represents an immensely important opportunity to scale up the transition, at a global level—to achieve the system transformation needed for our economy to work in the long term."
Google is not alone. Cisco, Unilever, Philips, Renault, and Kingfisher are all "global partners" in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation project. Dell also recently started working with the foundation to expand efforts like the world's first closed-loop plastics supply chain.
Shifting to a circular economy—everything from cutting out food waste to upcycling materials to eliminating wasted resources like cars or offices that often sit empty—could save over $2 trillion in Europe alone, the foundation estimates. It's something that the European Union is pushing for: The EU plans to release a strategy late this year for transforming to a circular economy.