Blockchain: the winning ticket to improving raw material traceability and the circular economy?

As part of the work we are carrying out for the European Commission – developing and testing new blockchains solutions that could enhance the European Blockchain Service infrastructure (EBSI), the use case of raw material traceability has been documented. It illustrates the potential of what blockchain could bring to the telecom industry at the European level.

To design most of the electronic equipment we use on a daily basis, it is necessary to use rare and precious metals. As we know, the extraction and supply of these metals is not neutral. This is even more true for the so-called "conflict minerals," such as gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten, which often come from outside Europe, for example from Central Africa. The mining and trading of those materials often happen without much respect for the environment and can be a major source of funding for warlords, fueling the violence that has plagued the region and driving human rights abuses.

Throughout the whole process – from extraction and manufacturing to recycling – telecom and IT manufacturers are struggling to have detailed end-to-end traceability of these resources, thus preventing more efficient and responsible management of their products' life cycles.

Reconditioning and recycling: what is at stake?

In the life cycle management of a product, such as a Livebox for example, we have focused on the two key stages, which are the refurbishment and the recycling of the box at the end of its life span. The use of the blockchain could considerably optimize the identification, monitoring and traceability of devices and their various components.

The refurbishment of end-of-usage devices happens when the end customer claims an after-sales exchange of the device or at the end of his subscription to the service. The devices are sent to the reconditioning center, which will dismantle them, perform a software reset, and replace and recycle worn parts if necessary (casings, rubber seals, cables, packaging, etc.) before reinjecting them into the commercial circuit. The same device is reconditioned five times on average during its life cycle.

In the case of a device at the end of its life span, it is sent to the recycling company. It will then be dismantled to recover all the raw materials that can still be used. This is where we find rare minerals such as gold or copper, but also a large number of reusable plastics.

By going back to the manufacturing and extraction phases, the blockchain would allow for better anticipation (and avoidance) of the impacts linked to the extraction of raw materials. The precise quality and quantity of all recycled components could be certified, thus allowing their optimal reinjection into the production circuit for the manufacturing of the future generation of devices. This would also allow for a better understanding of the ecological impacts of repackaging and recycling operations and would directly contribute to reducing the depletion of raw materials and the carbon footprint of manufacturers.

The blockchain’s role

The role of blockchain is to trace, certify and record all actions that have occurred on the product and to incentivize all actors in the chain to minimize their environmental footprints.

This role is particularly relevant for implementing the Digital Passport Product (DPP). The European Commission proposes that in the future all regulated products will get a digital passport that contains information about the product and its components. The DPP will make it easier for consumers and industry players to repair or recycle products, will limit waste, and will facilitate tracking substances of concern along the supply chain in line with EU regulations. Product labels, such as the EU energy label, can be introduced as well. This will help industry players and consumers to easily verify the environmental footprint of the products they buy and whether or not these products are compliant with different EU legislations that safeguard product safety as well as their environmental and energy impact.

In terms of traceability, a product is divided into several levels: the product itself, its accessories, the main components used to manufacture the product, and the chemical substances that are used to enable the semi-finish components to bond to each other (e.g., resin). Once the level of primary material is reached, the components are classified by an international standard called the CAS Registry (Chemical Abstracts Service).

The CAS registry numbers will therefore be found at different levels of product designs, and they will be monitored to optimize the use of rare minerals and reduce the European continent’s dependence on these resources.

Thanks to the blockchain, the entire chain is identified and tracked: the finished product and its components, the users, the manufacturer, the distributor, the consumers, the reconditioner, the repairer, and the recycler. The role of the blockchain will therefore be to trace, certify and record all the actions that have occurred on the product.

Finally, in order to materialize the Orange commitment to sustainable development and to meet the European Commission's environmental challenges, this blockchain solution will be developed by favoring – for example, in its technical design – the use of data centers powered by the greenest possible energy mix.

One of the benefits

One of the benefits of traceability is the ability to reduce the use of certain rare minerals. Whether it is an end-of-usage or end-of-life product, traceability via blockchain would be the key to giving authorities a complete view of the total quantities of exploited raw materials, from the production phase to the recycling and recovery phases. Focusing on the traceability of conflict minerals, for example, would not only help to anticipate excessive exploitation (this is the case for gold in particular) but also eradicate potential conflicts with the impacted regions of the globe.

As for manufacturers, the scarcity of these minerals in the near future will eventually force them to work more in closed ecosystems, thus promoting the circular economy.

They could thus, with all their partners, set up a global eco-design approach taking into account the lifespan of each generation of the product that is put on the market each year. At Orange, this closed-loop process has already been tested with the recovery of ABS polymers used in the production of the Livebox – a potentially replicable approach at all levels if the future blockchain solution is able to track the CAS levels of major components, such as case, motherboard and power supply.

Furthermore, traceability will allow each actor in the manufacturing chain to better analyze their eco-design models, thus improving the recovery of recycled materials. This would enable the manufacture of more eco-responsible products.

More globally, the benefits of such a blockchain solution would obviously lead to better optimization of operations and costs, better anticipation of risks (availability of raw materials, delivery times, crises, etc.) and better management of these risks through preventive or corrective measures.

What is certain is that EBSI is a program that will open many possibilities of use cases. We will probably have the pleasure of sharing more of them with you soon.

Antoine Maisonneuve
Antoine Maisonneuve

I am in charge of the Blockchain program at Orange Business Services. I have an intrapreneurial profile, and I am in charge of discovering the most relevant Blockchain use cases for our customers. For two years, we have been actively working with this technology to build the foundations of tomorrow's trusted networks.