Empowering the Circular Economy with Earth Observation

17th November 2021

What is the Circular Economy?

The circular economy is a move away from a “traditional” approach (take, make, use, waste), to an approach that includes Recycle, Return, Reuse, Repair. This diagram (provided by SetSquared within a very informative recent Sustainability Workshop) succinctly summarises the evolution of economies:

The circular economy takes into account the interaction of biological and technical components within the manufacturing process. This is very well summarised in the diagram below (with many more useful resources from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation):

As the circular economy gathers momentum, we are witnessing several global firms leading the charge in operating in a circular way, and building circularity into their entire product life cycle and supply chain. For example, Ikea are exploring many initiatives for furniture leasing (sharing), alongside refurbishment (reuse and recycling). And the clothing brand Patagonia have a long history of innovating, to work with local communities and use more sustainable materials to support their entire supply chain.

Where does 4EI and Earth Observation fit in the circular economy?

At a broad level, 4EI can be considered a “circular economy service provider”. The core of our business is to use space data for the betterment of humans and the planet. This manifests itself in us providing analytics and evidence regarding assets and the environment. 4EI’s contribution to the circular economy can be summarised as “Internal” and “External”.

Internal

Although 4EI is not a manufacturer of physical goods, many of the processes and activities that occur inside the company relating to our activities are inherently designed for efficiency, sharing and reuse. These include:

  • Constantly optimising the resources that we own. A simple example is making efficient use of our computing. If 2 teams need a computing resource, we will not necessarily invest in 2 computers. Instead we split the time of a single computer.
  • Following a software testing phase, and once processes are ready for deployment, we move our processing from our own computers to a cloud environment (aligning with the concepts of “Sharing” and “Reusing”).
  • We have a software development team, whose role is to constantly optimise and automate processing workflows. Efficiency of computer code can mean faster computer processing, which ultimately means power saving.
  • We have created “bi-products” from a process, which in themselves have value. For example, in striving to understand vehicle emissions for air quality models, we have developed a satellite derived congestion modelling methodology (which can be used for many urban planning applications, beyond only understanding pollution).
  • The 4EI “Green Team” (consisting of stakeholders from all levels of the Company) meet monthly to discuss our impact, focusing on environmental initiatives and community engagement.
  • Our head office building (where our internal computing is housed) is supplied by 100% renewable energy, and recycling of plastic, paper, card, glass and food waste occurs.

External

4EI inherently becomes part of the circular supply chain of other organisations by using satellites and geospatial analytics to help understand impact. These analytics activities include:

  • Providing measurements and evidence to prove that an asset is being managed sustainably. For example, satellite earth observation can help to answer the question: “Is the palm oil I am using being grown sustainably, and what natural landscape is being damaged in the process?”
  • Satellites allow the monitoring of methane emissions from a range of sources, such as landfill sites. 4EI’s partnership with GHGSat allows us to directly understand the impacts of waste.
  • Measuring natural capital. With an understanding of natural capital (which is  a finite resource), it’s value can be managed and controlled throughout the supply chain.
  • Satellites allow monitoring to occur remotely, reducing the need for “site visits”, and make it easy to compare changes over time.
  • Education – we continue to educate the communities that we work with about the power of satellite and geospatial technology and how it can benefit them. For example, we are working within the Sustainable Finance and Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) sectors to demonstrate where satellite data can support  them.

What actions can we take forward, and how can we continue to improve?

At 4EI we must continue to challenge ourselves to be more deeply engrained in the transition to a circular economy. There are several actions and focus areas that we will continue to work on. These include: 

  • Further considering the lifespan of our equipment (for example, IT resources) – how can we extend the life of our own assets? And once at the end of life, can computer hardware be recycled?
  • We must continue to focus on software code efficiency and making our processes more lean.
  • 4EI tracks and records our direct energy usage, with a constant view to reduction. Can we also consider our emissions? And specifically emissions that are indirect? (i.e. Scope 3 – emissions in the whole value chain from both upstream and downstream activities, which are not directly measured).
  • Joining a movement – 4EI are undergoing assessment for B Corp accreditation. Our local actions will be joined to a global initiative.

To find out more about how 4EI can help empower your circular supply chain, please get in touch.

Richard Flemmings

by Richard Flemmings

CTO

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