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underwater photo of trash dumped in the sea

The agility and capability of Small to Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) to adopt digital technologies to enhance and promote an effective circular economy could pave the way for effectively combatting plastic pollution.

By conducting in-depth interviews with circular-economy-based SMEs operating within plastic recycling, Dr Atanu Chaudhuri, in partnership with the University of Sussex Business School and Anglia Ruskin University understand how start-ups are working to remove and recycle used plastic from the world’s oceans.

Finding a viable second life for plastics

Dr Atanu Chaudhuri says,

“Plastic waste is one of the primary sources of pollution and biodiversity loss. The cleaning of rivers, oceans and cities of plastic waste has been attempted by many countries with varying degrees of success.”

However, the researchers say that plastic waste, if sorted and graded successfully, can have a second life and be used to create value-added products. It is here, they say, that SMEs can find opportunities to develop innovative business models which can benefit both planet and profits.

Circular economy through digitalisation

The challenge their research addresses lies in finding an effective means for developing a circular economy around plastic re-use. Digitalisation, they argue is providing the best way forward.

Dr Chaudhuri says,

“Some SMEs are involved in recycling plastic waste to produce innovative products – by adopting digital technologies such as 3D printing and blockchain to gain competitive advantage from their circular-economy-based business models. However, the specific capabilities needed to create value for customers and to generate a competitive advantage for such SMEs are not known.”

Studying SMEs to adopt digital technology

Through interviews with circular-economy-based SMEs operating within plastic recycling; Plastic Bank, Waste2Wear, Benthos Buttons in collaboration with Fishy Filaments, and Filamentive, the study defines the capabilities needed by SMEs to adopt and embed digital technology within the circular economy, and identifies the specific resources and capabilities needed to provide value to customers.

The study identified SMEs utilising circular economy initiatives to great success had qualities such as adaptability and exploration at their heart. Firms need to be able to swiftly understand, exploit and embrace the capabilities of such technologies to be able to both benefit the planet and gain a competitive advantage.

Here, the researchers say, managers seeking to move into a circular economy-based business model have much to learn. SMEs with circular-economy-based business models must first work to identify the skills and knowledge gaps within their teams and the end-users to be able to utilise new technologies effectively.

Dr Chaudhuri says,

“Our interviews show that the technologies are difficult to implement unless adequate attention is paid to adapting them to local conditions. This means training users and demonstrating the technologies’ value to them, as well as optimising any manufacturing processes. Whilst this, no doubt, involves investment, the good news is that we’ve seen from multiple other research projects that such efforts pay off in the long run. Companies can indeed profit from investing in technology and sustainability.”

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