Toward a new infrastructure that supports the recycling of industrial products

In recent years, companies are required to implement environmental measures in their operations as well as minimize greenhouse gas emissions and waste throughout the entire lifecycle of the products and services they provide. The lifecycle includes production, power use for production, supply chain logistics, consumer use and disposal or recycling.

Minimizing environmental impact through the 3Rs: reduction, reuse and recycling

Many regulations, taxes and transactional requirements imposed on companies vary depending on the results of life cycle assessments (LCAs) that evaluate the effectiveness of companies’ environmental measures throughout the lifecycle of their products and services. Companies must not only procure the materials and means to run their business, but must also monitor the movement and condition of their products after sales.

The need to implement effective environmental measures for LCAs is driving the creation of a circular economy that manages and minimizes environmental impact by connecting the arterial economy (production, processing, distribution and consumption) and venous economy (the recovery, separation and recycling of waste).

Realization of a circular economy requires implementation of the 3Rs: reducing the waste of energy and resources, reusing products, and recycling waste as much as possible.

Material Recycling Foundation for sustainable industrial products

The most challenging stage of the 3Rs is recycling because it’s difficult to separate and recover recyclable parts and materials. This is especially true of high-performance parts and materials with superior properties. For example, the tempered glass in recent smartphone displays has a higher melting point than regular glass and requires special equipment to recycle. So it’s necessary to develop new technologies that support recycling.

Initiatives such as accelerated technology development are being launched around the world to resolve this issue. For example, the European Commission (the executive body of the EU) proposed the Circular Economy Action Plan in March 2020, which requires the use of recycled materials and reduction of waste. In Japan, the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is promoting national development of new technologies and social systems that support the recycling of metal resources from urban mines.

Using block chain technology to support effective recycling

To properly and effectively recycle parts and materials from industrial products, one must track them from their origin in the circular chain (flow of goods in the circular economy) to determine their carbon footprint (total greenhouse gases) and trace the information necessary for their cyclical use (recoverability of materials, possibility of reuse, maintenance and repair records, etc.).

Fujitsu is using blockchain technology to create an information platform that ensures high transparency and traceability within the circular chain. “Circular economy players such as companies that recover resources, dismantle parts and recycle materials will use blockchain technologies to manage resources on an information platform that allows secure and reliable visualization of carbon footprints and resource origins”, says Division Sales Enablement Manager Takeshi Kinoshita from Fujitsu’s Business Operation & Sales Enablement Department. (Figure 1)

Mr. Takeshi Kinoshita of Fujitsu

Figure: Blockchain-based environmental value creation platform for recycled materials

When such platforms reveal demand for recycled resources, users can directly seek high value-added business opportunities without relying on existing business relationships. This should further strengthen efforts to recycle resources.

The complexity of resource lifecycles may require various information platforms to collaborate in the future. Since such collaborations could scare away users who fear leakage of technical information such as product composition and business information such as delivery destinations, there will need to be a system for controlling information disclosure while also ensuring the traceability of necessary information.

Europe is considering the introduction of a system called Digital Product Passport (DPP) that shares information on product manufacturers, materials used, recycling properties, etc. in the product life cycle. This system requires the attachment of a DPP when transferring products on the supply chain to ensure traceability. Foreign companies conducting business in Europe will likely be required to use the system, and a similar system may spread to other markets in other regions. In all cases, an information platform will be necessary to manage the status and movement history of products and services on the circular chain.

Expanding the range of recycled materials to FRP and beyond

Fujitsu is working with Teijin to create an information platform for the recycling of fiber reinforced plastic (FRP). This composite material is extremely strong and lightweight, but expensive to recycle because the fiber and plastic are difficult to separate.

By leveraging its accumulated knowledge of material characteristics and applicability, as well as its processing and production technology, Teijin is establishing methods for the recycling of FRP and other challenging materials.

If Teijin succeeds in its unprecedented efforts to establish a practical recycling method for carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), an FRP widely used to improve the efficiency of electric vehicles and airplanes, it will have a tremendous impact on the industry and propel the recycling of other challenging materials.

At this point in time, it is difficult to determine the needs of stakeholders who collect used materials, utilize recycled materials and so forth. So Fujitsu and Teijin are developing an information platform that will verify demand for the recycling of FRP. They are also “using agile development to improve the quality, cost and delivery (QCD) of the project,” Kinoshita added.

Fujitsu and Teijin plan to start conducting demonstration experiments in fiscal year 2022 toward commercialization of an information platform for FRP. They will also invite participating companies to establish and horizontally deploy information platforms for other environmentally valuable materials, as well as collaborate to link platforms and create a circular economy.