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Design Defined: How Does Product Design Enable the Circular Economy?

(This post is based on the video, “Product Design for the Circular Economy,” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

Many of us think of a linear model when we think of the economy — one in which raw materials are extracted, used to make a product and then tossed. But this cycle of “take, make, and waste” can’t possibly last forever. Fortunately, there’s an alternative: the circular economy.

A circular economy is designed to use resources for as long as possible, after which they’re recovered and regenerated so that waste is nearly eliminated. It’s a way to design waste out the system and to minimize negative external impacts. You might have heard it called closed loop, cradle-to-cradle, or zero waste.

What does a circular economy look like?

One of the coolest examples of how a circular economy can work is the city of Kalundborg in Denmark. The city has a symbiotic network of companies that work together to incorporate each other’s waste products as inputs into their own industrial processes.

Waste steam from a power plant is sold to a pharmaceutical manufacturer, and gypsum from the scrubbers goes to a drywall company. That company powers its facility with gas from a neighboring refinery, which happens to have a surplus of cooling water that it sells back to the power station.

In the same network, there are up to 30 exchanges of materials and energy, and each of the companies benefits from a performance advantage because they’re buying resources at lower costs than their competitors.

Where else can we find closed-loop systems?

Another example, one that might be a bit closer to home, has to do with beer. Breweries generate a lot of wastewater, spent grains, and carbon dioxide. Some breweries have started using the spent grains to grow mushrooms. The mushrooms can be sold for consumption, but they also break down the waste grains so that they can be digested by animals.

Later, livestock waste is mixed with brewery wastewater in a digester that produces methane and fertilizer. The methane can be burned in the brewing process, and the fertilizer feeds algae, which later becomes fish food. In some cases, a brewery’s excess carbon dioxide is even pumped into greenhouses to feed plants.

The Zero Emissions Research Institute (ZERI) has done a lot of work to advance this closed-loop model, and companies that adopt it, like Wildwood Brewing in Montana, add their own unique flavor. The key is that they’re recycling raw materials and redefining what we think of as waste.

How does this work in product design?

Product design is key to enabling the circular economy by creating long-lasting products that are easy to reuse and recycle. For example, one of Bresslergroup’s clients, a company that manufactures industrial wire and cable, needed help with shipping reels.

Wooden reels are the preferred solution for shipping industrial wire in the U.S. But because of their size, they’re prohibitively expensive to ship back for reuse. They typically end up in a landfill after only one trip.

Bresslergroup designed a four-part, modular reel that’s easy to assemble and breaks down for return shipment. Twenty of the modular reels can fit in the same space as a single assembled reel, and that creates a cost advantage for return and reuse. The new reel has a life cycle of 36 shipments, and the company started a take-back program to repair and recycle used reels.

The product has been so successful that the client started a side business to sell it to other wire and cable companies that were looking to spend less money on reels and lower their carbon footprint. Since then the concept has been expanded into reusable drums for smaller wire and bulk goods.

What inspires closed-loop products?

There are a few core principles to follow when you’re designing products for a circular economy:

  • Efficient use of material and energy
  • Use of recycled and recyclable materials
  • Design for repair, take back, upgrade, and disassembly

We can look for ideas that align with these principles in the nutrient flows of living systems. After all, there’s no such thing as waste in nature; it’s a total closed loop.

Sneakers are a great example of a category that’s looking to nature. Shoes in general are far from closed loop. They are made of many different materials adhered together, which makes them nearly impossible to recycle. Plus, those materials have to be shipped to a manufacturing plant from different parts of the globe. But we’re starting to see sneakers, like the Adidas Futurecraft 4D and Reebok Cotton and Corn, that cut down on the number of materials used.

To do that, they’re learning from nature. The Futurecraft 4D’s sole is 3D-printed with an algorithm that mimics how bones and trees adapt to stress. The midsole is made of a single material, but thanks to the algorithm it’s dense in high load zones and spare in others. While other sneakers derive their function from multiple materials, the Futurecraft 4D gets its complex function from one material with sophisticated, nature-inspired design. The cotton and corn shoe, on the other hand, derives its function from plant-based materials that can be composted at the end of life.

Ideas like these are discovered using the methodology of biomimicry. They imitate biological strategies to find novel innovations and design solutions. Those ideas inevitably lead to more sustainable products. Especially when it comes to closed-loop solutions, nature is always a great place to look for inspiration.

What’s driving the growth of the circular economy?

Design for a circular economy is currently more widespread in Europe. The European Union adopted a Circular Economy Action Plan, which mandates things like water reuse, and new laws that require manufacturers to take back products at the ends of their useful lives. It’s suddenly in those companies’ best interest to design products that are easily disassembled, recycled, or repaired.

Although the U.S. lags in these areas, the growth of the sharing economy is contributing to a shift in how consumers think about ownership and how businesses think about product development. Shared products need to be more robust and easier to repair — notions that are closer to a closed-loop outlook and in direct opposition to planned obsolescence.

Slowly, more products are being designed to last longer, and companies are improving their recycling and reuse programs. Even cellphone carriers now run take-back programs, which refurbish phones or break them down for recycling. A few years ago, your only option might have been to toss your device.

For companies that get this right, durable and recyclable products can be a distinguishing factor and drive brand loyalty. Patagonia, for instance, promises its clothes will last for years. It also repairs worn items, collects clothes for recycling, and sells used products. In doing so, it breaks the take-make-waste cycle and gives customers something to feel good about.

How can product developers move the circular economy forward?

In order for the circular economy to work, we need system-wide innovation, and that will require rethinking and redefining our products and services.

How will you contribute to the circular economy? Do you have a product you’ve extracted considerable value from over a long period or repeat uses? How does its design help you do so? Changing our mindsets to prize these types of products over easily disposable ones will help manufacturers get there, too.

Seth GaleWyrick, a former mechanical engineer and sustainability specialist at Bresslergroup, is currently a Certified Biomimicry Professional with the bio-inspired consultancy, Biomimicry 3.8. From there, he continues to work with Bresslergroup on projects that deliver disruptive innovation. This collaboration works well for companies needing turnkey biomimicry projects — all the way from biological strategies through to products in users’ hands. Drop us a line if you’re interested in learning more!

Learn about more product design principles when you download our free eBook, Design Defined, vol 1.