If you’ve ever spent time inside a data center, you know it’s usually hot on one side of the cabinets, cold on the other side, and incredibly noisy from numerous fans turning in servers, switches, routers, and security devices. And if you’ve ever been the one to unpack those devices in shipping and receiving, you know what’s leftover resembles the remnants of an online order for a family of five – cardboard, plastic, and paper scattered everywhere!

Our devices can be found in major data centers around the world. That’s why we spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve our products and processes to focus on a circular economy designed to reduce the global footprint of resource use and waste. I’m proud to say we’re making steady, demonstrable progress.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the current initiatives and the transformation we’re spearheading both internally and with partners.

What is a circular economy?

Sometimes referred to as “circularity” or a “closed-loop system,” a circular economy is an economic system focused on the elimination of waste and resource overuse by designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. By reducing consumption and employing principles of repair, refurbishment, remanufacturing, and recycling, we minimize resource use, waste, carbon emissions, and pollution.

The goal of a circular economy is to improve the lifespan and productivity of equipment and infrastructure with the idea that “waste” becomes a resource. (Think composting for servers.) This differs from the traditional linear economy, which is a “take-make-waste” model where products are used and then thrown away.

A circular economy is essential because as a society we’re using more natural resources than our planet can regenerate. It’s also our belief that circular business models can be just as profitable as the old linear model, and we’re on our way to proving that.

circular economy

Our approach extends from how we design, build, and deliver products to how we value the assets we have and turn those assets into new products. We also apply Cisco technology to support our customers in their own circular transformations. Cisco was a founding partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), which facilitates collaboration and knowledge-sharing in the pursuit of a circular economy.

In January 2018, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins joined eight other technology executives at the World Economic Forum in signing the PACE Capital Equipment Pledge. We committed to 100 percent product return, pledging to take back used equipment from any customer and grow the reuse of equipment through refurbishing, remanufacturing, and repair. We continue to actively engage in the PACE Capital Equipment Coalition and other collaborative efforts to advance the circular economy.

How We Design

We realize that the way we design our products and packaging directly impacts our customers’ ability to achieve their own sustainability goals. Through our circular design strategy, we’re advancing how we can support our customers and meet our own objectives and aspirations. One good example is our cloud customers, who are keenly focused on energy consumption, waste, and their ability to reuse data center hardware.

Our circular design principles are facilitating progress toward these goals. By 2025, all new products will be designed with circularity in mind, driving increased reuse, repair, recycling, and resource efficiency.

Our Strategic Priorities for Design

• Material use – By eliminating unnecessary material and incorporating recycled content, we directly reduce the embedded environmental footprint of our products. Some examples include the closed-loop plastic resin now in use in select collaboration devices, our goal to eliminate paper inserts in product shipments and no-paint/no-bezel designs.

Standardize and modularize – We strive to make it easier to upgrade and repair or reuse our devices. Examples include the IR1101 router, which is modular for easy upgradeability, and our 1RU “pizza box” standardization.

Sustainable packaging – The idea here is to reduce waste and increase recyclability. We’re increasing fiber-only designs (examples include the Sunkist headset and WebEx Share) and eliminated more than 80,000 pounds of corrugate through other design changes in FY20.

Smart energy consumption – Improving the energy efficiency of products and architecture is where we can do the most to help our customers achieve their own carbon reduction goals, and we continue to make progress. The idle power used by the IR1101 router is 45 percent less than in the previous generation, and the implementation of Cisco Silicon One provides substantial benefits as well: its use in the Cisco 8201 new IRU fixed system provides a 163x increase in power efficiency over the 100G ASR 9000.

Design for disassembly, repair, and reuse – We are continually striving to improve repair and reuse, thereby reducing waste. In the future, we plan to release products that exemplify this principle.

These design principles have direct benefits for our customers and other aspects of our circular model as we take back, repair and remanufacture, and recycle products. For example, our Product Takeback and Reuse Program lets owners return hardware that has reached end-of-use at no cost to them. Design changes improve our ability to remanufacture products we then sell through the Cisco Refresh (Certified Remanufactured) Program, which offers the same quality as new equipment. It also helps to facilitate the reuse of recycled content at the level of the material, such as the closed-loop plastic resin we implemented in FY20 – transforming plastic from our e-waste into the new raw material used in some of our latest products.

A Close Eye on the Future

Beyond the initiatives currently underway, we’re working to achieve ambitious goals and have committed the necessary resources to make meaningful progress in reducing our environmental impact and accelerating contributions to a circular economy well into the future.

We care deeply about these initiatives to move toward a circular economy, and we’re always looking for partners in this effort, be they like-minded companies or concerned individuals who want to make a lasting impact on the planet we share.

If you would like more information, check out our Corporate Social Responsibility Report and watch this short video on the Cisco Circular Design Principles.


Katie Schindall

Director, Circular Economy

Supply Chain Transformation