The idea of the circular economy is to reduce waste, landfill and the choking of our oceans by keeping materials ‘in the economic loop’ for as long as possible by reusing, repairing, refurbishing, and recycling products and their components. However, the circular economy is inhibited by a lack of data: recyclers do not know what materials to expect and their components; manufacturers do not get feedback on the practical recyclability of their products; and consumers don’t know enough about the environmental impact of products when buying them, nor can they see how those purchasing decisions play out after disposal in a yellow-topped bin.

A recent paper sponsored by the German Environmental Ministry (BMU) looks at how big data could drive the circular economy by using a Digital Lifecyle Passport which tracks products through the circular economy.

Current measures

There are already regulatory requirements aimed at ‘populating’ the product lifecycle with data that is useful for repair and recycling. But these are more like ‘birth certificates’ than passports.

EU rules require that by 2026 manufacturers must ensure that batteries are accompanied by a data structure, accessible online and linked to the individual battery, which contains information about battery capacity, battery life and the presence of hazardous elements in the battery.

As part of its Green Deal, the European Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan also provides for an economy-wide Digital Product Passport, which will require information on a product’s components, materials, chemical substances, repairability, spare parts and proper disposal.

The construction industry consumes 40% of the world’s resources. Architects have proposed a Materials Passport for each new building (40% of the buildings in place by 2050 have not yet been built). Not only would the Materials Passport identify hazards in demolition, but it would help identify demolished buildings as sources of materials that can be re-used.

‘At the present time, someone who needs to get rid of an existing building goes about this by calling a demolition firm and getting out their credit card. If that person is in possession of a material passport, however, their depreciated building suddenly gains value again, meaning they might not have to pay for the demolition at all—and in some cases might even make money from it! This principle applies to all buildings, everywhere in the world. We call this principle: “Buildings as Material Mines”.’

The Digital Lifecycle Passport

The BMU-sponsored paper identified two related problem or shortcomings with the current measures:

  • There is a lack of uniformity and consistent structure for information related to products and their lifecycles across the economy, and globally. A solution is to introduce a standardised model, using open cloud-based architecture and common data structure, which would allow information to be distributed from one stakeholder to another “not only in a meaningful manner (semantics) but also in a structured (syntax) manner.”
  • While the initial information about the product has to be provided by the manufacturer (hence the ‘birth certificate’), a data passport would allow other stakeholders that use or handle a product along its lifecycle to read and write content. This means that, based on standardised data, the environmental, safety etc impacts of a product in the real world could be recorded and accessible by the manufacturer, recyclers and consumers.

How the Digital Lifecycle Passport could work is illustrated below:

The technology

The Digital Lifecycle Passport will utilise the Asset Administration Shell (AAS) promoted by the German-led Industrie 4.0 initiative. AAS has been described as “a bridge between a tangible asset and IoT world…..in easy terms, it’s a magical tool which equips any industry component with capabilities to talk and to share information with the digital IoT world.”

AAS provides, as the name implies, a ‘digital shell’ virtually surrounding a physical product. The shell consists of two parts (familiar to the packet switching world): a header and a body. The AAS header contains information for identification, administration, and usage of the asset (e.g. who made the manufactured product). The body part has sub-models (or partial models) which contain hierarchically organized asset properties. These properties contain features which refer to the data and functions related to the asset: for example, maintenance information or the energy consumption of the product in different operating modes. The body of the AAS shell includes a component manager which administers the sub-models and is also responsible for linking the information in AAS to loT world. This allows a remote IoT controller to access a rich suite of information about the controlled device.

The AAS-based Digital Lifecycle Passport would be hosted in the cloud, with a community cloud and a public cloud. The manufacturer (or a regulator) could decide which of the sub-models would be accessible in the public cloud (e.g. the manual on how to manage the product in the most energy efficient manner) and in the community cloud (e.g. the chemical and metallic components which can be extracted in recycling).

Use case

The BMU-sponsored paper used an example of end of life recycling of electronic products, such as routers and mobile phones:

Step 1: images from the recycler's sorting system are fed into a neural network which detects the device type (e.g. mobile phone). The recognised device category is then used to query the cloud platform to access the Digital Lifecycle Passport. This allows, based on component information in the AAS body, the hazardous devices to be separated out from the non-hazardous devices. The non-hazardous devices are sent for manual or automated disassembly. The hazardous devices are ejected and sent into further treatment.

Step 2: separates out the higher value items. The Digital Lifecycle Passport will provide information about the concentration of precious metals, such as gold, within an object. If the concentration as recorded in the passport is economically feasible to extract, these items will be then processed by electro-chemical processes to extract the precious metals.

Unresolved issues

One key challenge is how to link the cloud-based Digital Lifecycle Passport to an individual product at any point in the lifecycle. One approach (as in the use case) is to rely on object detection through visual scanning devices. But the BMU-sponsored paper concludes that this approach is feasible only for a small number of devices. The better solution would be marker-based solutions such as optical markers (QR codes), RFID, or watermark-based approaches.

Another challenge is whether to have one Digital Lifecycle Passport per product category or one passport for each individual product. The BMU-sponsored paper suggests that the product-wide passport may be suitable only for highly standardised, short lived products such as plastic packaging. Individual Digital Lifecycle Passports for each product would allow a more sophisticated circular economy by making available data on a product’s date of manufacture and its date of last maintenance.

Automated Environmental assessments?

As the AAS can be populated by IoT devices that monitor performance of a product, the BMU paper suggests, that environmental assessments could be conducted with a ‘touch of a button’. The paper suggests that “automated environmental assessments and publication of results... can facilitate environmentally conscious purchase decisions by end consumers". Automated environmental and lifecycle assessments also would give valuable feedback to manufacturers for improved design of products. And the Digital Lifecycle Passport could make environmental impacts more transparent along a product’s lifecycle, including how products are used by consumers.

All powerful public benefits, but that’s a lot of information collected by the devices and machines we use in our lives.