If you‘ve been involved in the sustainability sector, like we have here at Ricoh, you most probably would have heard of the term ‘circular economy’. For governments, corporates and even individuals, the term ‘circular economy’ has become a key topic linked to sustainability.
So, what exactly is a circular economy?
It refers to a system where materials are reused and recycled as many times as possible. This helps to maximise their value and reduce the amount of waste generated. By doing so, we limit the need to extract new resources, with less waste to worry about! Adopting a circular economy is integral to combating overconsumption and pollution, two major environmental issues that we struggle with today.
Here at Ricoh, we recognise that sustainability will drive the future. Through our work, we hope to achieve a sustainable society through our 3Ps approach, which is one that balances the needs of the Planet (environment), People (society), and Profit (economic activities).
Our work encompasses the manufacture of electronic products such as printers, copiers, and interactive whiteboards, as well as document and IT management services. As product manufacturers, we can influence a product’s entire lifecycle. From product design to material recovery, hence placing us in a critical position to contribute towards a sustainable society.
In order to achieve this goal, it is imperative for us to work with other stakeholders in society. Thus, this led us to establish the Comet Circle in 1994, which is Ricoh’s model of a circular economy. It showcases the stages of a product’s lifecycle (represented by the arrows) and our partners (represented by the circles) involved with the different processes.
Stage 1: Manufacturing
Let’s start from the first stage of a product’s lifecycle, the manufacturing stage.
The initial stages are important in determining the efficacy and ease of reusing/recycling the products later. Products should be designed in a way that simplifies reuse and recycling. For example, the plastic grades of our product parts are labelled, which makes sorting and recycling easier while retaining the quality of recycled materials. The positions of hidden screws are also indicated on product covers, making dismantling, and recycling more convenient.
During the manufacturing process, we seek to reduce our dependence on new raw materials by using recycled materials and reducing the weight and size of our products. For example, 100% postconsumer plastic is used to manufacture our toner bottles.
Toner bottles made of recycled plastic and labelling of hidden screws
Stage 2: Packaging
After the products have been manufactured, they are packed and ready to be shipped to our customers. Packaging presents another opportunity to reduce resource use. For us, the packaging of production printers is an interesting example.
These are the largest products (in terms of weight and size) that we manufacture. Previously, cardboard and wooden pallets were used to transport them. This proved to be costly and damaging to the environment as large amounts of packaging where required.
Our solution to this was to create a “packageless” delivery, where the product was wrapped and secured with belts, corner protection equipment, and ties. Aside from the plastic wrappers, everything else is reusable, which saves money and time while minimising waste.
(L) Before improvement, (R) After improvement
Stage 3: (Re)use and Recycling
To us, we believe that resources have the highest economic value when they remain in use by customers instead of being treated as waste. Therefore, we hope to reuse and recycle products and parts as many times as possible to maximise this value. However, we must ensure that the recycling process produces products that continue to be useful – if not, recycling would not be economically rational.
In Singapore, used toner bottles and cartridges, printers, and copiers are collected. Parts in good condition are recovered and reused in the manufacturing process. Recycled copier machines are made with these parts and customers may purchase such machines, which effectively extends the machines’ lifespans. For parts that cannot be reused, we extract materials such as plastic and metals from them.
Recycling process of printers and copiers in Singapore
Aside from the physical processes, partnerships are also key to ensuring a circular economy. By identifying partners, we can figure out what each party does, and their respective environmental impacts. Close communication allows us to share useful information to reduce the use of environmentally sensitive substances and ensure efficient transportation.
Our customers are also considered our partners as we can provide green solutions and help their offices become eco-friendly. After all, no one works alone, and cooperation is key to reaching our common goal of a circular economy.
Challenges in Achieving a Circular Economy
Although these processes seem straightforward, it is challenging to implement them as we scrutinise every process carefully to avoid missing out any details. Take for example the recycling of our machines and toner bottles – the challenge is in encouraging customers to return them and to make sure that they are recycled properly.
Lessons for the Future
The Comet Circle was established more than 25 years ago. However, it proves to be increasingly pertinent in today’s world as natural resources become scarce and huge amounts of waste are being generated.
We are glad that sustainability has been taken more seriously, with both consumers and governments becoming more environmentally conscious. This puts pressure on companies to take responsibility for their activities. Advancements in technology have also made sustainability more feasible in the eyes of businesses.
To end off our article, here are some lessons from our own journey for businesses who wish to champion sustainability:
– Lead by example – the sustainability message should be endorsed by upper management to motivate and encourage employees to believe in this cause.
– Involve members across various departments in sustainability efforts so that different perspectives can be considered.
– Learn from the successful cases of other companies.
– Start from the basics and don’t underestimate simple, everyday efforts – the small things add up!
Ultimately, the circular economy is an opportunity for us to rethink our practices and innovate competitively. Although it demands a great amount of commitment and effort, Ricoh strongly believes in upholding this responsibility. Through our efforts, we hope to inspire customers and organisations to go circular together to protect our environment.
Tan Hui Xin is an Environmental Executive at Ricoh Asia Pacific, which is the regional headquarters for the Ricoh Group.
Ricoh aims to help companies and individuals transform the way they work and harness their collective knowledge on empowering digital workplaces through innovative technologies and services. With sustainability being a core tenet of our business, we embrace the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and strive to achieve a zero-carbon society and a circular economy through our work.