Setting the scene

Take a moment to pause and look around you. What do you see? The cabinet, the coffee maker, and the office chair were designed by someone, as were your clothes, the bicycle in the workplace parking lot, and the cosmetics on the shelf at home. When you shop online or book a dentist appointment online, someone has designed the user interface and the accompanying service experience. So, we are constantly surrounded by design solutions. The way a product or service is designed influences our thinking, habits, and usage. 

Our current linear take-make-use economic model has, of course, guided and continues to guide design. The focus of design has been on the individual product and at use phase without broader consideration of the product life cycle or its impacts. Of course, the Eco-design Directive has guided energy efficiency for electrical appliances, and “environmentally friendly materials” and life cycle design have been discussed for a long time, but the linear thinking model has not been widely questioned. 

EU’s Sustainable Product Policy Initiative requires that all products sold in the EU must be in line with the circular economy in the future.

Now, as the entire EU, with Finland at the forefront, works hard to transition to a circular economy, it is useful and, in fact, necessary for companies to understand how products, services, and their underlying processes should be developed to stay ahead of the game. For example, the EU’s Sustainable Product Policy Initiative requires that all products sold in the EU must be in line with the circular economy in the future. 

So, what do we mean by circular product design strategies? The shortest answer is that when you turn the three circular economy principles into questions and seek answers to them as part of the design process, you are already taking the first steps towards circular design: 1) How do we design out waste and emissions? 2) How do we keep materials in high-value circulation? 3) How do we restore and regenerate natural ecosystems? 

However, it is necessary to delve a little deeper into what is at stake, so the following text serves as an introduction to the world of circular design. In practice, circular product design can be summarised under three headings: 

1.Product features 

2.Material health

3.The product as part of a larger system 

3.The product as part of a larger system 

I start with this because truly understanding and internalising the product cycle in industrial processes and as part of the natural ecosystem forms the basis for designing product features and material choices. 

Humans have invented waste, or in other words, waste is a design flaw. In nature, there is no waste, everything is just raw material. In nature, raw materials are part of a larger ecosystem (the forest is a good example of an ecosystem), strengthening, restoring and regenerating the ecosystem instead of producing waste or polluting the soil, air, and water, and being harmful to animals and humans. 

Understanding this cycle and incorporating it into one’s own design approach is extremely important and the starting point for all other design work.

Understanding this cycle and incorporating it into one’s own design approach is extremely important and the starting point for all other design work. Similarly, this understanding  is also the basis for designing products for multiple life cycles, not just one life cycle, even if it is a long lifecycle. 

A good example is a building: in a circular economy, buildings are designed as material banks. This means that the house is designed so that parts can be reused in the highest value in subsequent buildings. If new life cycles have not been considered at the design phase, the building will become a “disposable building.” For example, currently, the concrete elements of buildings end up being crushed and used as roadbed, which represents a recycling economy but not circular economy.” 

2.Material health

Instead of solely focusing on material choices, start designing for the healthy and beneficial material and safe chemical flows. For example, the Cradle to Cradle design framework and certification place particular emphasis on the materials health and the elimination of harmful chemicals (going well beyond the REACH regulation) to ensure they are safe for people and the environment and enable the safe cycles mentioned above. Material health, therefore, is primarily about R&D practices. 

For instance, furniture designer and manufacturer Andreu World has C2C-certified their entire product portfolio, switched to biobased and recyclable materials, and established strict chemical guidelines to ensure their products leave a positive impact on the world. In addition, the company has developed their own R&D work and processes ambitiously and has collaborated closely with their supply chain partners. Another good example is the Swedish sportswear brand Houdini, which has also heavily invested in development work and developed mono-materials in line with the EU’s textile strategy, which are easy to keep in circulation due to their simple material composition. An opposite example of poor design is air conditioning units and the use of “eternal chemicals” (article in Finnish) such as fluorinated PFAS compounds, which end up in the environment as well as in ourselves. 

As a rule of thumb, consumer goods should be designed for the biological cycle and durable goods for the technical cycle.

All materials belong either to the so-called technical cycle (non-renewable materials, such as metals and minerals) or the biological cycle (renewable materials, such as cotton and wood). As a rule of thumb, consumer goods should be designed for the biological cycle and durable goods for the technical cycle. For instance, if a shampoo designed for the biological cycle contains harmful chemicals, the chemicals will be washed out with the shower water into the soil, water bodies, and organisms, and eventually back to ourselves through drinking water or in the form of fish on the plate.  

1.Product Features 

For healthy & beneficial material streams to be achieved, it is important to consider – not only the materials and chemicals used but – also how the materials are joined together. A simplified example is a chair made of wood and metal. Wood belongs to the biological cycle and metal to the technical cycle. If the parts are glued together, they cannot be separated without breaking the chair, making it suitable only for material recycling. This type of design solution is called a monstrous hybrid. Avoid creating monster hybrids! If, instead of using glue, the designer had chosen screwing or clicking fasteners, the wooden parts could be easily replaced, sanded, and installed in a new chair, thus giving the component a new life cycle and keeping it in circulation as a high-value product. 

Computers, for example, belong to the technical cycle, but if a computer is not designed to be modular so that it can be easily disassembled and the parts that require repair can be replaced, it can easily become low-value electronic waste. 

Therefore, product features should be designed to support circular systems using the following strategies:  

  1. Modularity: easy to disassemble and reassemble (often referred to as ‘design for disassembly’) 
  2. Ease of maintenance/repair/restoration/updating 
  3. Upgradability & compatibility, e.g. product portfolio parts/components are compatible 
  4. Suitable for remanufacturing 
  5. Recyclability

It goes without saying that many products contain both biological (renewable) and technical (non-renewable) materials, which is why it is so crucial to design easy separation or parts according to the modularity principle. 

In practice, the first step is to examine your own design process in light of these principles; what is already being done, what has not yet been considered. The next step is to create circular design guidelines so that the principles are implemented in every aspect of the  process and for every person involved in design. 

P.S. Stay tuned, as this is the first part of the ‘Circular Product Design Strategies’ article series! 

Pic: Cradle to Cradle design framework by Michael Braungart and William McDonough

Anne Raudaskoski, Ethica Circular Economy Strategist & Co-Founder. In collaboration with Design Forum Finland, Ethica leads the Circular Design programme for 50 Finnish companies.