Circular is the new straight

We've seen a massive increase in the number of disruptive technologies emerging over the past few years. 

New tools, new tech and a new workforce have all fuelled this - we're no longer designing for a single, lonely user, but for an array of globally interconnected people. 

As this scale changes, so must our design.

What is this circular economy that needs circular design?

“An industrial system that is restorative by design which means you can focus on economic growth without the increased use of natural resources.”
Bart GoetzeeSenior Group Sustainability at Philips

Who's doing it?

1. Patagonia: "One of the most responsible things we can do as a company is to make high-quality stuff that lasts for years and can be repaired, so you don’t have to buy more of it. Worn Wear celebrates the stories we wear, keeps your gear in action longer through repair and reuse, and recycles your garments when they're beyond repair.”
2. Philips: The architect Thomas Rau worked with Philips to purchase light as a service. The end result was a bespoke 'pay-per-lux' intelligent lighting system to fit the requirements of the space, at a manageable price. Philips retain control over the items they produce, enabling better maintenance, reconditioning and recovery.

Everything comes from nature

Have you ever eaten a sandwich from say, Pret (other sandwich providers are available)? Let’s dissect this innocent sandwich:

  1. Cardboard: yep, I can recycle that
  2. Cellophane: not sure, maybe not?
  3. Bread, lettuce, bacon, tomato: sure! That’s all biodegradable, because it’s natural, right?

You see, it's how we use the material that dictates the environmental impact. If we're going to address sustainability, we have to find ways of interlocking the complex systems within which we live, with making better choices that ultimately result in environmental gain. Put in it’s purest form, we need to learn to do more, with less.

But, what are these complex systems?

 Circular example showing interactions

  • We have the human systems - that is, how we communicate and interrelate, how we have our constructed society to operate
  • We have the industrial systems, which is basically the *entire* economy
  • And all of that has to operate within the biggest system - the biggest and arguably the most important - the eco system

So, as you can see it’s us in the centre of it all (typical human narcissism but it’s true) and the choices that we make as an individual, in every single job that we have, no matter how high or low we are in the pecking order of human hierarchy, has an impact on all of these systems

Ever heard of biodegradability?

Would it surprise you if I told you that biodegradability is a material property, and not a definition of environmental benefit? So any products that made of cellulose fibre, like the cardboard on that Pret sandwich pack, and any natural products, like the sandwich itself - if those all end up in a natural (aerobic) environment they will degrade naturally (this is a good thing) - the carbon they are storing will be naturally released and go back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

But, unfortunately most natural things don't end up back in nature, they end up in landfills. In this type of environment, which is anaerobic, those same carbon molecules degrade in a different way, because there is no oxygen. They become methane, which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So, even that old sandwich, if it ends up in landfill, contributes to climate change.

There are facilities that take the methane and turn it into energy, and so eliminate the need for fossil fuels. We need to be smart about this, and start designing systems and services that alleviate these problems. So, thinking back to that sandwich: when you threw the packet away, thinking it’s ok because it’s paper and food and will biodegrade - well, if the local landfill is not a specialised facility that collects the methane, then the whole theory of "it's natural so it will biodegrade" becomes a double negative. 

 Environmental life cycle

We have an increasing population, so we need to find innovative ways of solving these problems that we face. We need to stop thinking in this linear way, where a product has an end of life, and think about the material’s resurrection, if you will.

 Lifecycle thinking

That's where a process called Lifecycle Thinking comes in. Essentially everything that is created goes through a series of scientific processes, so we are thinking about how everything that we do in at each stage in the product production and use process affects the natural environment.

Consumption is the biggest problem, design is (one of) the best solutions

Imagine if we started to reconsider how we design things, and produce innovative and elegant design solutions that will solve the problems?
This is called DESIGN-LED SYSTEM CHANGE, and is what happens when design starts dictating the way the system can be more sustainable.

Let’s chill on the food front

 Vintage lady in front of fridge

A popular and accessible example of this is the humble refrigerator. We all have one of these cool individuals hanging out in our kitchen, and while they vary in size, shape, sleekness, they really haven’t changed much since the 1950s. The major design change is that they have got bigger. Much bigger.

 Giant silver fridge

At the time of writing, we know food waste is a major problem in our society. Imagine if we designed fridges that halved that? Wow, game changer. But *it is not hard*. Because we also know that as a result of urbanisation we’re ditching the weekly shop for an almost day-by-day, buy-what-you-need routine: so how about making them smaller, so we can actually *see* all the food we have and it’s not lost at the back, or hidden in the “crisper drawer” (yes, that draw is especially for salad) that doesn’t work anyway?

Don’t boil our planet away

The kettle is a great one. This is a slightly different case - this one came about because of something called *PRODUCT PERSON FAILURE*. That’s when the product is capable of doing what you need it to (ie only boiling enough water as you need) but the person doesn’t do it. Because they’re lazy, maybe; because they’re distracted, probably; because they’ve never heard anything about the concept of only boiling what you need, perhaps . 

 Kettle in front of crashing wave

A recent study of 86,000 households found 95% of people boiled the kettle every day with 40% boiling water five times a day or more.  Only boiling what you need cuts down on energy consumption by 31%. These eco kettles allow you to fill up the external chamber of the kettle, but then you have to take the extra step of holding down a button to transfer water into the inner chamber, where it will boil. This action makes you cognitively and physically aware of what you are doing, and perhaps because of that laziness or distraction, you’re more likely to only hold it down until it’s reached the level you need.

This really works, and is a great argument for the effectiveness of behaviour changing products.

 Closed loop picture

Now imagine if we developed these products as part of a closed loop system or sold them as a service rather than a product (I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute).

This is not hard - we just need to understand the system and look for viable, market-driven consumer-demand alternatives. That’s how we can start radically altering the sustainability agenda, and using sustainability as a criteria for finding systems-based solutions.

The outer circle

 Toaster with toast ready to eat

I know I’m making an assumption, but I guess everyone has got one of these in their house? Take a second to consider what you would do if it stopped working. Would you throw it out? Pop down to Argos and buy another one? Take it to a tip that you know recycles? Try and repair it?

 Posting a letter

Did you think of this? How would you feel if you could post the broken section of your toaster back to the manufacturer, so they could repair it and send it back to you? Or they could disassemble it for reuse and recycling and just post you a new one?

 Modular toaster

This is the brainchild of Agency of Design - individual toasting slots clipped together to form the whole toaster. When a heating element eventually fails, the failed slot can be taken out of the toaster (leaving the remaining slots functioning) and returned to the manufacturer to be reprocessed and a new slot posted out. This modular approach allowed them to make the individual slots thin enough to fit through a letterbox so the product return could be as easy as possible.

To achieve a circular economy, products and systems need to be redesigned simultaneously

Even with the best design for end of life, there is no financial motivation for the manufacturer to change when only the recycler will profit. We need to use design to recover materials and return the value of those materials to the manufacturer.

A company already doing this is Orangebox, an office chair manufacturer which offers to remove old chairs from a company before delivering new sets. Primarily, this was to offer a better service to customers, but it had a big knock-on effect. Orangebox started disassembling old chairs to recover and sell materials. It was taking an employee 45 minutes to take the chair apart, however, and the labour cost was wiping out the value of recovered materials. Orangebox's design priorities changed and its next chair, The Ara, could be pulled apart by hand; materials were standardised and the next life of the product had been planned

Designing a product without an understanding of where it will end up is useless.

These were simple design changes that made material easy to recover and process and, most crucially, the manufacturer was getting its product back. These design changes would have made no difference in the collective model of waste recycling, but by taking products back, Orangebox was motivated to recover material value as quickly and cleanly as possible. The solution was in concurrently designing products and systems. Designing a product without an understanding of where it will end up is useless.

This is known as the “outer circle", which is primarily concerned with designing products for easier disassembly and recycling - it implies a closed loop of materials.

The inner circle

The “inner circle” has been somewhat muted in public discussions. It is primarily concerned with Repair and Reuse - and it's here where we can transform our reality. While the “outer circle” is only feasible at scale, and only large companies can profit from, the “inner circle” is people centred, for citizens, small companies and community initiatives to reinvent.

We have this here in London: it’s the Restart Project.  It's all across the city, Camden, Leytonstone, Brixton, Kilburn - they run Restart Parties where people can bring their broken electronics, have them fixed, and learn how to fix them. Aside from the 393kg of electronic waste that was saved from the landfill in the sky, in the first year more than 500 people had their electronic mentality shifted. How?

Through the demystification of electronics. By opening them up and looking inside; by actually finding out for the first time what a solenoid or heating element looks like; by seeing first hand how easy it is to rewire a plug or change a fuse - people become less alienated from their appliances and more able to attempt to repair them.

Things we as product designers can do

This doesn't just happen though. There is no public funding for initiatives like this, little fundraising and barely any public awareness. That's where we come in, where you come in. Some of you work purely in digital, some of you may not even work in design yet, but some of you will work with products, and some for companies who would consider themselves forward-thinking. In our future careers, here's what we can do:

  1. Take a stand against Evil Corp. designing!
    We're getting shut out of small electronics. Literally. To save that extra 1mm depth chases and cases are being glued and soldered, instead of screwed. Let us in!
  2. Give repairing its voice in waste hierarchy
    You make replacement parts for your product? Make replacement instructions as well. You don't have to be an electrician to fix a toaster - it's ok to let Joe Public have a go too. If they try, but don't fix it, fix it for them anyway. No "void of guarantee" nonsense - reward the effort and dedication of trying the repair and not simply trashing it and buying another. Most of the time it takes more time and effort to try and repair it than it does to earn the tenner to buy another toaster.
  3. Don't follow the trend in marketing shame
    Yes, marketeers have some answering to do here too. They are shaming us into feeling unfashionable if we don't have the latest, sleekest device. How cool are we going to feel shelling out £600 for a new smartphone over the dude at the office who just opened his up and replaced the micro-transmuter-thingy because it was designed so he could?
  4. Document Disassembly for Repair
    On the plus side, the documentation for Disassembly for Recycling is getting better. But, as seen in the Outer Circle, that's only really beneficial for the large corps. What would be beneficial for us would be to be able to repair something. It's a sad fact that manufacturers have been hiding behind copyright laws and purposely limiting consumer access to this info. Don't let it happen for your product.

We need a sustainable lifestyle change

Old economic models can't be given a quick nip and a tuck to look good, they need a sustainable lifestyle change - we as designers should recognise and encourage it as much as possible.

Transitioning the Circular Economy into the mainstream will be one of the biggest creative challenges of our time.

We have to move from our traditional take-make-dispose economy, to one that has a closed loop, where materials, nutrients, and data are continuously repurposed. Transitioning the Circular Economy into the mainstream will be one of the biggest creative challenges of our time. But design thinking is an ideal approach for tackling this complex, systemic, ambitious challenge.


The Guardian - Designing out Waste: Toasters for a Circular Economy

Leyla Acaroglu - Paper Beats Plastic

The Guardian - Circular economy isn't just recycling products


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