The circular economy is an industrial model designed and managed around circular flows of renewable, long-lasting, high value, low carbon, low entropy, low waste, non-toxic resources, products and processes. It is the systemic solution for a sustainable advanced economy, operating within and not against natural processes and the Earth’s capacity to support life in all its diversity. It aims to have a positive impact and optimal performance on all three sustainability dimensions: society, environment and economy.
Its definition is simple and somewhat self-evident: circular as opposed to linear. While the definition might be easy to understand on a conceptual level, the changes required to displace the current, entrenched linear, accelerated consumption and disposal model are not easy to accept and undertake. But neither are they impossible. On the contrary, not only are the changes necessary in response to the dangerous aspects of Anthropocene, but we should adopt them with great enthusiasm, imagination, and courage as they rely on our great capacity for innovation, empathy, rational response to reality, and respect for the common good.
To start, we must disregard any economist that does not understand the laws of nature, pushes for unlimited growth on a limited planet, and thinks that the economy is a human artifact that can exist independently of nature. An excellent source of knowledge and policy prescriptions worth your time and attention is CASSE (Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy).
Next, we need to focus on the design process, principles, and objectives. This is where most of the changes need to take place on the path from the linear, unsustainable economy to the circular, sustainable one. Design engineers have the power to make these changes, after all they control up to 80 percent of a product’s impact during its use cycle – a better term for life cycle and a better fit for the circular economy that intends to switch our behavior from consumption to usage – if only they would exercise it in a more assertive way.
Given much needed time and support, we would all benefit from their work and creativity in moving us faster and deeper into a circular, sustainable economy. Here are a few challenges design engineers can and need to find answers or better answers to:
- Do you know where your product ends-up?
- Do you know how fast your product is discarded?
- Why are you designing a new product?
- Who and what made your products obsolete?
- How long can you make your product last?
- Would you prefer quality to be a higher priority deliverable than cost?
- How easy is it to repair, maintain, remanufacture, disassemble, upgrade your product?
- Is your design modular?
- Are you using only non-toxic, non-virgin, renewable, abundant materials?
- Can your product be easily repurposed after the original use can no longer be extended?
- Can you design out waste from your product’s manufacturing, distribution and usage?
- Will your design allow for a manufacturing process that is most material resource efficient and least energy intensive?
- Would you have a better understanding on how your product is being used and therefore your design improved if what was sold was the usage or function, not the product itself (as in the product-service system)?
- Can you label your product with an LCSA (Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment)?
- Can you design a “perpetuum circulare” product similar to what we find in nature?
There are plenty of exciting examples of the circular economy in action that can inspire design engineers and all of us to contribute to its success. Here are just a few highly innovative companies that are already occupying the circular economy space and proving the concept’s viability:
iFixit is a global community of people dedicated to repair, one of the best ways to keep a product in use as long as possible and avoid disposal to landfill. They create and share free repair manuals for all kind of products, focusing with great skill and creativity on those that are intentionally made not to allow repair by their owners or are intentionally designed for substitution with a new product, like most of the consumer electronics. They want to reconnect us with all the things we buy and make us think of all of them as durables, instead of consumables. Their work provides a valuable and selfless feedback on how to design for longevity.
bioMASON is a biotechnology start-up that has invented an alternative, no-waste technology for manufacturing bricks. They create bricks using biological and chemical processes that mimic coral formation. Their stated mission is: “…we believe there is a better solution for reducing Co2 emissions generated by global masonry manufacturing. bioMASON employs bacteria to “grow” a durable cement in ambient temperatures between loose grains of aggregate; producing building materials without emitting greenhouse gases, and without the depletion of non-renewable resources.”
Phonebloks is an open-source, open-innovation organization started with the goal to end planned obsolescence and reduce electronic waste. They apply modular design to consumer electronics in general, and to smartphones, in particular. Modular design ensures ease of disassembly for repair, upgrades or repurpose, increased longevity and prevents the fast disposal of whole products with all its negative impact on society and the environment. According to the company,
We at Phonebloks see ourselves as a means to promote a holistic approach to end or reduce the various ethical and environmental problems existing in the consumer electronic market today. We believe in transformation from a flat to a circular economy, as well as steering towards new production methods and indeed new products. Logistic solutions and production materials will help us reach a more sensible industry. We see this transformation creating less waste and pollution as well as a longer life-cycle and higher level of recyclability (or even bio-degradability) for the end product. We advocate transparency, open source and open innovation and want to be the hub where the industry talk and listen to each other and to the public.
This explanation perfectly reflects the intentions and opportunities driving the circular economy. Fortunately, many other organizations are supporting the transition to this new means of production and consumption. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a major player in the transition towards a circular economy through its educational work and business partners.
As more organizations recognize and use the term, the circular economy model can become mainstream. Informed practitioners from all disciplines can accelerate its practice by devising new ways to contextualize and make tangible the circular economy for the organizations, companies and individuals with whom they work.