Honoring Elinor Ostrom's Vision of a Circular Economy

by Bill Olson / March 8, 2024

The concept of a circular economy has emerged as a critical pathway toward sustainable innovation and growth. In honor of International Women's Day, this article explores the principles and applications of the circular economy with a focus on the legacy of Elinor Ostrom in promoting sustainable economic systems.

Defining the Circular Economy—Drawing Inspiration from Nature

Much like the cycle of nature, every exhaled molecule is conserved, recycled, and repurposed as technical nutrients to benefit future plants, animals, and ecosystems. The circular economy aims to emulate these cyclical processes in nature, ensuring nothing goes to waste and everything is reused, recycled, or regenerated.

The Tragedy of the Commons and Elinor Ostrom’s Legacy

Economics and waste are inextricably linked. If the waste has insufficient economic value, it will not be recovered and reused. The circular economy seeks to change that paradigm by fashioning products for refurbishment and reuse. The product is a platform for building the next generation of products, just like natural ecosystems exist to develop the next generation of living things. Creating products that generate revenue as they are used can be easily paired to extend their working life. When products are reused or upgraded by adding features or enhancing performance, we extend the end of their first working life.

Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, was instrumental in promoting a circular economy through her groundbreaking work on common pool resource management. Her research demonstrated that communities could effectively govern shared resources (such as forests and fisheries) through collective action and cooperation without requiring top-down regulation. Ostrom's insights continue to inspire efforts to create more sustainable and equitable economic systems, including the circular economy. Although promising, one question lingers: How do we leverage Elinor Ostrom's economic theory and the circular economy to our corporate benefit?

One answer lies in the success of the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) project.

Insights from the iNEMI Project (and continued contributions from Elinor Ostrom)

Drawing from the framework developed by Ostrom, the iNEMI project set out to create a robust, sustainable circular supply economy for hard drive disks (HDDs). The project first identified key decision makers, their decision points, and the data and models they base their decisions on. This approach was instrumental in identifying critical stakeholder groups, new technologies, business relationships, and business models necessary for circularizing the electronics manufacturing economy.

The project demonstrated several pathways for a circular economy, including value recovery from rare earth-containing magnets and precious metals from circuit boards. The project also used innovative technologies and economic analysis to establish the viability of the many pathways in a circular economy. Ostrom's framework played a critical role in shaping the project's success, highlighting the importance of collaboration and sustainable governance in achieving a circular economy for used electronics.

Why Should We Take a Circular Economic Approach?

The iNEMI Value Recovery Project, Phase 2 final report emphasizes the benefits of adopting a circular economic approach, particularly for original electronics manufacturers (OEMs). The report highlights the natural balance in ecosystems, where resources are continually reused and recycled, leading to optimal use and minimal waste. By applying this concept to electronics manufacturing, OEMs can create products that support a circular economy, ensuring that materials are reused and recycled efficiently. The findings and suggestions outlined in the report apply to OEMs beyond those involved in HDDs. They offer valuable insights into how OEMs can benefit from increasing the economic value of their products by implementing circular financial practices.

By rethinking product design, materials sourcing, and end-of-life management, OEMs can reduce waste, improve resource efficiency, and enhance their sustainability efforts. Benchmark supports our customers in their efforts to strengthen a circular economy by providing innovative solutions for product design, material sourcing, and end-of-life management. We help you identify opportunities for reuse and recycling, optimize your supply chains, and develop strategies for recovering valuable materials from used products.

Benchmark’s Commitment to a Circular Economy

Stay tuned for part two of this two-part article series, where we will further explore circular economic principles and shed more light on our product sustainability services, along with our engineering, supply chain, and manufacturing optimization. Whether your priority is minimizing your environmental footprint, reducing carbon emissions, or adopting circular economic strategies, our adaptable solutions are tailored to meet your unique needs.

As Elinor Ostrom so aptly stated:

“We can’t just sit around waiting for the global solution... There is a lot that can be done at a household level, at a community level, at a regional level.”

Interview with Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom

A circular economy matters. Download Benchmark's 2023 Sustainability Report to learn more about Benchmark's commitment to a more sustainable world. Together, we can streamline sustainability initiatives, realize impactful changes, and pave the way for a future where environmental stewardship is not just an aspiration but a reality.

Happy International Women's Day!

Sustainability Diversity

about the author

Bill Olson

As Director of Sustainability at Benchmark Electronics, Bill leads efforts to improve ESG and sustainability at a global level, working to expand the company's offerings and better serve our customers, employees, investors, operations, and communities. Prior to joining Benchmark, Bill founded and led a key initiative called ECOMOTO at Motorola/Google/Lenovo, which aimed to deliver environmentally sound, seamless mobile products. Bill holds a doctorate degree in Inorganic Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has 24 U.S. patents, and over 40 technical publications.

up-to-date content