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circular economy: the ultimate form of sustainability

in sustainable design

The word sustainability has a number of slightly different meanings. Overall, it means keeping a long-term view on things, with the aim of preserving our planet and its resources so that life (for both humans and other species) can continue in the future in a happy balance.

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

But this is not because we are bad! In fact, it is mostly because our society has been conceived according to a linear flow. Products are designed to be made, used and then tossed at some point, in a take-make-dispose cycle. In this scenario, what happens after a product has been disposed of is just not a subject of interest.

Today, plastic-invaded oceans and overflowing landfills are here to prove the pitfalls of this model, suggesting that something needs to change. And a circular economy can be the answer.

Credit: Pexels

linear vs circular economy

A circular economy model transforms the take-make-dispose cycle into a take-make-remake cycle.

In a circular model, the design process becomes one step longer, considering upfront what will happen after a product is tossed. In other words, designers need to take the after-end-of-life phase into account, planning for ways to transform and reuse materials, in a virtually never-ending cycle.

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).
Credit: anooi studio

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.   In particular, the way in which materials cycle 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.

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

Sustainable materials developed by the open-source project Materiom.
Credit: Sustainable materials developed by the open-source project Materiom

When selecting materials, a circular design approach suggests to:

To start moving towards a circular economy, all the materials we use today could be assessed and improved in terms of resources used to produce them, ethical & social aspects of their production, use of chemicals etc. And the resulting materials would be something that can sustainably circulate in the system.

Read more about circular design

will products become services?

The discussion around a circular economy has raised a very interesting question on the topic of ownership.

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

and the list could continue…

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

Diagram of circulating resources around the worlds in a circular economy.
Credit: Engineers Journal

a new sustainable living scheme 

Overall, the idea of a circular economy introduces huge changes in both materials and processes.

In a licensing-instead-of-owning scenario, products are designed to be disassembled and regenerated instead of being tossed. For what concerns materials, all biodegradable parts 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, transportation methods are also to be modified and based on renewable resources.

Transitioning to a circular economy model is definitely a long-run objective. The most ambitious part of it is that many (virtually all) companies need to work in the same direction in order to make the switch happen.

Not an easy task for sure. But – with our 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!

To facilitate the transition, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has also recently released CIRCULYTICS, a tool for companies and designers to measure their progress towards a circular model!

Cover image by Daniel Hansen (via Unsplash)

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