Circular economy: the ultimate form of sustainability

in Sustainable Design

Sustainability and circular economy are terms we’re hearing a lot these days, to the point that we can start calling them design trends...but what do they really mean?

The concept of sustainability has a number of slightly different meanings:

  • being respectful of the planet without damaging it with waste or pollutants
  • giving natural resources the time to regenerate between uses without exploiting them too fast
  • treating every person with respect without denying well-being to anybody

and more…

In general, sustainability means keeping a long-term view that aims at preserving our planet and its resources so that life (for both us humans and other species) can continue in the future in a happy balance.

Looking at us and our current way of living, it’s easy to realize that we’re not walking along a sustainable path. We use a lot of resources, often don’t give them the time to regenerate and produce a lot of waste.

But this is not because we are bad!

In fact, it is mostly due to the way we’ve been operating so far. The majority of the things we use has been designed with a linear flow in mind. Products are meant to be made, used and then tossed at some point, in a take-make-dispose cycle. And what happens after a product has been disposed was for long time not a subject of interest.
Today, plastic-invaded oceans and overflowing landfills are here to prove that this is not a sustainable path and something needs to change.

Idea.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Pexels (opened in a new window/tab)

So what to do?

What needs to change first of all is the design approach.
For the first time designers need to consider upfront what will happen when the product will be tossed and how its materials will be transformed, reused and made useful again, in a virtually never-ending cycle.

In short words, circular economy is the answer.

A sketch showing the difference between linear economy (where goods go to waste after one use), recycling economy (where goods get reused and then eventually go to waste) and circular economy (where goods cycle indefinitely without going to waste).<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Circular Flanders (opened in a new window/tab)

Which materials for a circular economy?

Designing a product with a circular flow in mind requires extreme attention in the selection of every single component and material. In a circular economy, the same materials will circulate in the system over and over again, so it’s essential to choose them carefully.

All the materials we use today can be assessed and improved in terms of resources used to produce them, ethical and social aspects of their production, use of chemicals etc. And the resulting materials will be something that can sustainably circulate in the system.
In particular, the way a material cycles into the system can be either biological or technical.
All biodegradable materials (like wood, paper etc…) will go back into the environment after use – in a biological cycle. The more compostable materials we use, the more we’ll be able to fertilize the soil, creating value out of waste.

Sustainable materials developed by the open source project Materiom.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Sustainable materials developed by the open source project Materiom (opened in a new window/tab)

Materials like plastic or metals instead, will go through a technical cycle, i.e. they’ll be transformed (physically or chemically) to be reused beyond the life cycle of a single product.

Curious about the newest plastic-recycling initiatives?
Check out the projects presented during the most recent Design Weeks in Milan and London.

Two examples of plastic recycling projects. 1. Kids furniture made of recycled plastic toys. 2. Coasters made of recycled plastic wrap.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: ecoBirdy (opened in a new window/tab), Weez & Merl (via Instagram) (opened in a new window/tab)

Above all, a circular and sustainable design approach suggests to

  • source materials that come as waste in another production process
  • make sure materials are extracted respecting the planet (when sourcing new ones).


More details about circular design in the official Circular Design Guide (opened in a new window/tab) by Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Will products become services?

All this discussion about circular economy has raised a very interesting question around the topic of “ownership”.

If we think about it, what we really need most of the times is a certain functionality more than an object. These are some questions that made me think:

  • Do we need to own a car or do we just need to go from A to B?
  • Do we need to own furniture or do we just need a (beautifully and functionally) furnished home?
  • Do we need to own a washing machine or do we just need to wash clothes at home?

and the list could continue...

In a circular economy scenario, an alternative to owning objects would be to “borrow” them from the manufacturers and pay a service licence for their use.

Diagram of circulating resources arounf the worlds in a circular economy.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Engineers Journal (opened in a new window/tab)

This approach would actually benefit both manufacturers and customers.
Manufacturers would still own their products (and all their expensive components). They’d also maintain broader and better control over them, allowing for more efficient maintenance.
On the other side, customers would only pay for what they actually use without having to care about maintenance and repairs. This would also probably reduce waste at its source as manufacturers would be motivated to make products that last longer instead of being driven by “selling more products” as they are now.

A new sustainable living scheme 

Overall, the idea of circular economy brings huge changes on both materials and processes.

In a licencing-instead-of-owning scenario, products are designed to be disassembled and regenerated instead of being tossed.

And for what concerns materials, all biodegradable parts can go back to the soil and feed the agriculture, while non-biodegradable materials are reused in the new generation of products.

To make this a fully sustainable living scheme, transport methods are also an important part of the game and need to be based on renewable resources.

Circular economy is definitely a long-run objective. The most ambitious part of it is that – in order to switch to a circular economy – there need to be many (virtually all) companies that work in the same direction.
Not an easy task for sure. But – with the current level of knowledge and technology – we’re now having this amazing opportunity at our fingertips. We can truly redesign our future for the better!

"We designed the system, we can redesign it" quote.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation (via Instagram) (opened in a new window/tab)

Some companies are already moving in this direction (think about IKEA's test buy-back program (opened in a new window/tab) for which they're "lending" sofas in the Japanese market instead of selling them). But this may become just normal in the future!
To facilitate the transition, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has also released CIRCULYTICS, a tool for companies and designers to measure their progress towards a circular model!

What do you think of the idea of a circular economy? I get genuinely excited when I think at where this could bring us!

Cover image by Thomas Lambert (via Unsplash)

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Don't be shy, let me know what you think!

On Juan Sandiego said:
Thanks for this guide, Silvia. It's really interesting. I hope manufacturers can see the potential in this and make the change soon.
On Silvia - DforDesign said:
Hi Juan! Thanks for stopping by!!!

You're right, a circular economy really has a huge potential for everybody (manufacturers included)!

I'm positive the shift will happen! Consumers are becoming more mindful of the environmental credentials of products throughout the industries and this is a MASSIVE driver for manufacturers! If we all do our part I truly think we can make it happen!


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