With 80% of a product's impact determined at design phase, what role should designers play in building circular economy

Developing a circular economy is a tough nut to crack. But engaging the design community is going to be crucial if we are to realize the benefits, writes Fraser Owen.

Photo courtesy Great Recovery Project

For the past six months, the Great Recovery project has built up a loyal following. Launched by the Action and Research Centre at the RSA in London last September, it aspires to develop a cross-disciplinary design community that is well-equipped to support the development of an economy which is based on resource-efficient principles.

According to the government agency WRAP, around 420 million tonnes of material ends up in landfill in the UK every year. That waste could be avoided if only we redesigned our manufacturing processes around circular economy principles, so says the project’s founders Sophie Thomas and Nat Hunter, co-directors of design at the RSA.

To get to grips with the challenge being faced, the organization spent its first six months running workshops to better understand what action and research is required if we are to transform the way society manages resources. “It’s blindingly obvious that with our earth’s finite resources and our current model of ‘take-make-dispose’, we’re going to reach crisis point very soon,” writes Hilary Chittenden in a blog post for Fairphone. She is a designer working with Sophie and Nat on the Great Recovery.

Mobile phones, says Hilary, are a perfect example of products that desperately need to be redesigned. There is around 85 million handsets sitting idle in homes in the UK alone, each containing on average 40 elements including gold and rare earths like tantalum. “These elements are all currently lost to us, in the same way that the millions of tonnes of resources in landfill are. We need to find a way to prevent this flawed system, instead of simply digging more holes in the ground to throw rubbish in, and mine minerals out”, she says.

Staggeringly, 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the concept and design phase, proving that design plays a vital role when making the move from a linear to a circular economy.

As part of the Great Recovery’s efforts to work with designers to explore and establish the best practices to move to these circular systems, the organization has mapped out four models it believes designers can apply to products. “They are not all right for every product – part of the challenge is establishing which of these models works for your brief, which needs to be done at the very beginning of the design process to ensure that the chosen system is properly embedded.”

It’s blindingly obvious that with our current model of ‘take-make-dispose’ we’re going to reach crisis point very soon

The four design models are:

  1. Designing for longevity: In a nutshell, products should be designed to have a long life span, extended through user action of upgrade, fixing and repair. “Products designed for longevity can be taken apart easily without breaking any security seals or glued components. When these products fall out of favour the user should be encouraged to pass them on.”

  2. Designing for leasing/service: To tap into the emerging sharing economy, the project says that sellable products ought to be redesigned into a service business model. “Service models require a complete system redesign as well as an understanding of added value to both the business and customer,” writes Hayley.

  3. Designing for re-use in manufacture: There is also a call for designing for re-use in manufacture, whereby products, or their components, can be taken back by business to be re-used or re-built for re-sale. “This system would help switch the focus onto value of material rather than volume.”

  4. Designing for material recovery: Finally, this model re-captures material through new system designs that guarantee a quick flow of the product into their material stream and back out as a recycled raw material. “Fast flowing products and packaging should be redesigned to fit the existing recovery and recycling systems – and comprehensive communications should be created to make sure these materials are put in the right streams by consumers.”

So, what would the Great Recovery team like to see happen? Well, as part of its first report, launched last month to great fanfare at the House of Commons, the organization has laid out a series of recommendations for action.

Central to any shift away from business-as-usual is to upskill the design industry and engage future generations of designers. “Sustainable design must not continue to be left behind or added as a last minute thought,” says the report. Instead, sustainability should become a “matriculation criterion” in every design and engineering degree.

It’s also about encouraging creative approaches, with new and existing tools realigned around the challenge of designing for circularity. Established tools like the teardown process – the act of disassembling a product to identify its component parts and functions – are highly effective but not commonplace in design thinking. This needs to change.

Sustainable design must not continue to be left behind or added as a last minute thought

Above all, there is a real need to develop further and higher education modules to integrate design for circular economy and systems thinking into a wide range of design curricula. And to develop an education programme that encourages cross-curricular learning, connecting designers with engineers, material scientists, anthropologists, marketers and business students. New business approaches

The onus is also on the business community, argues the Great Recovery project. Businesses must begin to develop design briefs around new business models that “take account of provenance, longevity, impact and end-of-life”. Basically, they need to start considering a circular approach, it says.

The report calls for a fostering of new technological partnerships between the design, suppliers and waste industries. Short lifecycle products, such as FMCGs, should be redesigned to prioritise full material recovery. And packaging design briefs ought to match the capability of existing recovery facilities.

Of course, none of this is easy and there is recognition of a need to build incentives for developing and designing new industrial symbiotic relationships within businesses. “These systems could potentially bring great opportunities in new markets and create local partnerships and jobs,” says the report.

Collaborate and connect

Rightly, the project places a big emphasis on the need for the different players to connect and collaborate more. It wants a physical space to be created that would allow collaborative R&D for businesses and their supply chains to test, trial and design around circular principles and the four design models. Part of this is about investigating the common barriers to collaboration in circularity.

Of course, the behaviour of consumers is crucial, and building a debate around ownership and how it is effected in the approach to design.

It also wants to see supply chains opened up to scrutiny. “[We should] question cheap global production through the advocation of transparent supply chains by supporting those that campaign and expose bad practice,” it argues.

And all of this best practice must be underpinned by the enforcement of legislation, says the report – especially when it comes to ensuring that packaging is designed for full recoverability and that all businesses provide full operating and repair manuals for the electronic products they sell.

“As you can see, all of these systems cannot be put into place by a designer alone. To move to a circular economy, we need designers to work alongside materials scientists, manufacturers, recovery experts, policy makers and investors to make this possible, and the Great Recovery is working to build networks across all of these different areas, promoting collaboration and partnerships to move towards more circular systems,” adds Hayley.

Click here to download the Great Recovery project report.