Circular Economy #2: How can we redesign our production cycle to remove waste and create new resources?

By Tierney Smith

The Circular Economy uses biological materials that once exhausted can be returned safely to the natural world. It exploits technological materials that can be kept within the system at high quality and used again. And again. And again.

Yesterday we brought you the basic principles behind the Circular Economy. Today we are going to look at how we go about designing and building this new way.

We now know the Circular Economy (CE) is one which is designed to be restorative and to feed materials back into the system.

We understand that we can learn from the way nature functions in order to build this.

But doing this we will mean completely transforming the way we design, make, use, own and dispose of things – as well as how we fund them.

Today we take a look at how we begin to change our systems to fit the new CE.

We must design for disassembly, allowing materials from products to go back into the system (Source: thebestfriend.org/Creative Commons)

The basic premise of the circular economy it to keep our vital resources in the loop. For this a revolution in design will be needed, ensuring that these valuable materials can be re-collected from goods (still with the same quality) and used again.

In the same way in natural waste becomes a resource, in the CE the waste goods of today become the resources of tomorrow.

For this to happen, however, the key will be to be able to break our good and products down, back into their components and materials, so that these materials can be sorted and re-used in a new product. This is called designing for disassembly.

While big steps have been taken by many artists and designers to design with waste – recycled and up-cycled products – this is only a temporary fix, and the CE idea focuses on designing out waste altogether.

One of the best examples of this is the work being done by those designers looking at Cradle-to-Cradle principles. Here products are made to be dismantled at their end of life – when biological materials go back into nature and technological materials back into the system.

While this seems like a simple idea, it is not something that is widely practiced in a design market that places aesthetics and functionality above all else.

Just 1mm can make the difference between products being reused or sent to landfill (Source: Yutaka Tsutano/Creative Commons)

Dustin Benton from Green Alliance uses the example of the iPad.

To make it as thin as possible, the computer is sealed. While giving it a sleek finish, this means that it is more difficult to repair or replace the battery – impossible without sending it off to the store.

Meanwhile (Benton explains) the latest rival to the iPad from Google uses ‘easy open’ clips allowing users to access the components – as demonstrated in a video by technology repair website, iFixit.

It is not only attractive but it is repairable. And still only 1mm wider than the iPad.

Douwe Jan Joustra from One Planet Architecture Institute – an Amsterdam based firm working closely with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation says: “The most important thing is designing for disassembly; that is designing products in a way that you can recapture the materials that are used and quality that they have when we started using them so that we can have our resources used in a circular way. We reuse and reuse and reuse them again.

“Basically we need a kind of design that enables us to regain the resources in a high quality way and what we do when we put stuff into the waste system we bring it all together and make it into a waste soup and then we have to find the right part of the resources in the big soup.”

Buying performance – not the product

What is we were able to buy the performance of our appliance without having to buy the product? (Source: jim212jim/Creative Commons)

Material goods are not the only aspects of the circular economy that needs an overhaul. Entire new business models will also need to be designed.

The circular economy relies on the sharp distinction between consumption and use of materials – placing the emphasis on the use of a product.

This means a major design of business models away from selling widgets themselves to selling their use or life-cycle, what Joustra calls ‘buying performance.’

Rather than the one-way consumption habits of today, this new system will place the responsibility firmly into the hands of the manufacturers and retailers who will retain ownership and sell the performance of a product.

This will involve the development of efficient and effective take-back systems and will push companies towards making more durable products that can be refurbished.

For example in the One Planet Architecture Institute, lighting is rented from Phillips at a monthly upfront fee – a contract which says the company will get so much lighting per-day. Phillips then pay for the electricity bills of this lighting.

Meanwhile in Northern Europe, washing machine manufacturer Electrolux offered customers per-wash options of leasing devices based on smart metering, where the company could track both the number of uses and the type of cycles used by the household.

While this model has been discontinued many companies including Appliance Warehouse of America and Bosch Siemens Hausgeräte provide leasing options to both commercial and household customers.

With companies responsible for ensuring the quality of products, for fixing it when it goes wrong and eventually disposing of the system – they would loose money for an inefficient or poor quality product.

It will be in their best interest to make a durable and efficient systems.

But how can we interest people in loaning products (or buying a service) over ownership?

Often ownership is about status. Having an expensive car or the newest iPhone is a sign that people are doing well in their lives – a trophy to show off about. Would this still be possible in a circular world?

91% of Ferrari cars in Europe are not brought outright by consumers (Source: casggo/Creative Commons)

The simple answer is yes.

91% of Ferraris – one of the ultimate status symbols – across Europe are brought on a performance basis and are not owned by those who use them, according to Joustra.

Car and bike-hire schemes in the UK, France, Brazil and Mexico are similar success stories.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation report ‘Towards the Circular Economy’ also notes this trend, estimating that the car-sharing market will grow around 30% per year between 2009 and 2016.

With less responsibility for the upkeep and disposal of your products – and better quality as businesses start to feel the financial impact of faulty goods, it could be a win-win for consumers.

Douwe Jan Joustra says: “Ownership is a concept nature doesn’t know.

“It is a big transition because right now we have an economic system but also a cultural system which is quite based on the idea of ownership. We will have to have a major shift in the cultural identity of ownership.”

“The cultural idea that you need to own products to really show your position that is just not true. It is not about ownership it is about what you can afford to use. Because when I have a low income I will buy a cheap television set and it would be the same way in a service oriented society – my income would still be the key to the types of services I could buy.”

Tomorrow: Why is collaboration so important to the Circular Economy?

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