Digital technologies play a crucial role in the transition to a circular economy. Specifically, the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart products connected to it are a crucial enabler of the circular economy, but with potential rebound effects. The IoT is an enabler, especially in terms of product redesign, business model innovation and reformulation of material supply chains.

IoT as an enabler of the circular economy

A recent scientific article by RISE Research and Innovation for Smart Entreprises in Brescia analyses the enabling role of digitalisation, especially in the context of blockchain, 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality in the electrical and electronic equipment supply chain. In particular, these tools would be crucial in the WEEE recycling, from which EUR 2 billion could be derived in Europe alone.

According to Bressanelli and other authors, IoT would be crucial at many stages of the product life cycle to extend product life, increase energy efficiency and close the loop.
At the beginning of a product's life, digital technologies would make it possible to transform data about products in use into valuable information to improve product design for circularity. During the use phase, IoT would be instrumental in monitoring product activities to prevent misbehaviour by consumers when using the product, which can lead to faster wear and tear, enable the provision of predictive maintenance and optimisation of product use with less resource consumption as well as its digital updating. Finally, at the end of life, the Internet of Things could be crucial in tracking products to increase collection rates and enable better decision-making regarding reuse, repair and recycling activities.

Between waste recycling, automotive and fashion

Among the companies to have harnessed sensors and artificial intelligence first appears Denmark's Nordsense ( Born in Copenhagen and now present in the U.S., Spain, Norway, and the Netherlands, the Danish company offers a simple and comprehensive solution that optimizes waste collection processes by monitoring the level of trash in the bin with IoT. Through advanced data analysis, Nordsense suggests an optimized driving route and efficient garbage collection to green workers. In this way, Nordsense reduces the number of vehicles on the road, their fuel consumption and, at the same time, avoids overflowing and unsanitary bins.

The world of waste and recycling, however, is not the only one that has seen interesting future developments in the IoT. In the automotive sector, Toyota has been focusing on Big Data and the Internet of Things for several years. The Japanese company, committed to creating future mobility solutions, started Toyota Connected ( many years ago as a London-based spin-off. Today, thanks to the work of engineers and software developers, Toyota Connected leverages Toyota's Mobility Services (MSPF) platform, a cloud-based digital ecosystem that provides the tools needed to bring mobility services including ride-sharing, car sharing, and remote delivery to market. Beyond that, the platform in the future aims for a made-to-order urban mobility, where artificial intelligence will manage cars, aircraft or otherwise, all strictly driverless.

Again in the automotive sector, developed by Goodyear, we find Oxygene, the innovative tire that integrates a LiFi (visible light) communication system with mobile connectivity that travels at the speed of light, enabling it to connect to the Internet of Things (IoT), making it possible to exchange data from vehicle to vehicle and between the vehicle and the relevant infrastructure, crucial for intelligent sustainable and shared mobility management systems.
In general, the Internet of Things allows automotive materials and components to be better tracked throughout their life cycle so that they can be more easily recovered and recycled or remanufactured.

A similar thing can be said for the fashion industry. Here, too, several companies are trying to leverage digital technologies to make it more transparent and sustainable. Such is the case with MCQ, a fashion label launched by Alexander McQueen that leverages blockchain and IoT to demonstrate its sustainability commitments and unite customers around sustainable luxury fashion, authenticity, and re-commerce. MCQ has designed MYMCQ, a blockchain-powered technology platform implemented by Everledger, which allows designers and consumers to securely record and exchange clothing created by selected designers through the creation of a secure and permanent digital record of each clothing item.

Product as a service: smart washing machines

In addition, IoT-enabled innovation can have direct spillovers on the provision of circular business models and products-as-a-service, particularly for repair, pay-per-use, and sharing.

For example, IoT enables washing machine manufacturers to provide new services, for a better customer experience by facilitating new business models based on usage, i.e., wash cycles, and consumption for new revenue streams. Commercial washing machine suppliers are using Industrial IoT (IIoT) to expand their businesses. They are leveraging the data generated by machines in the field to make services a significant revenue stream. New value-added services, such as real-time monitoring, remote troubleshooting, and predictive maintenance, are helping equipment manufacturers stand out from the competition and generate recurring revenues that protect their business from periods of economic uncertainty.

Samsung was among the first to enter the industry by launching, as early as 2021, a bi-lingual artificial intelligence-enabled washing machine with an English and Hindi user interface. This new line of fully automatic front-loading washing machines features a new design and is equipped with Samsung's proprietary EcoBubble and QuickDrive technologies, which the company says help save time and energy and provide 45 percent more fabric care. Such washing machines offer a customizable washing process, while artificial intelligence can learn and remember customers' washing habits, suggest the most frequently used wash cycle, and more.

Bosch and Electrolux are carrying out product-as-a-service projects in the household appliance sector in several countries. While Bosch kicked off the BlueMovement project ( in the industry in the Netherlands, Electrolux carried out a pilot project in Gotland, Sweden, where a regular washing machine was replaced by a product-as-a-service system for fifty households: a pay-per-wash service. The measurement of the number of wash cycles was made possible by an energy-efficient digital washing machine, a central database, and the installation of intelligent energy management devices. Of course, there is a downside: while helping customers reduce energy, water, and detergent consumption is a worthy initiative, having data on user habits creates some privacy issues that will need to be addressed in the coming years.

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