Design and the Circular Economy

| Ideas & Opinions

Joseph O’Connor joined Triteq in 2010 to build and develop a Product Design Team. A Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers, Joseph’s work has spanned many sectors with an increasing focus on design of medical diagnostic devices and sustainable development within the fields of Design for Need. This focus was developed during the years he lived and worked in China, supporting and promoting innovation at Business and Governmental level where he is still a regular speaker and advisor. It has also led him into the fields of emerging technologies, developing valuable applications as a consultant with private and institutional research laboratories. He continues to apply the principles of design and innovation across a broad spectrum, mentoring companies from UK based start-ups to global brands

Design and the Circular Economy

You may have heard of the term of late and how it contrasts to a Linear Economy with a traditional lifecycle that has a start and end of life that are disconnected. End of life meaning disposal that generates waste and disconnected meaning no effective way of reconnecting the end to a new beginning without that waste being incurred.

The first point to make however is this. We are already in a circular economy in that every action has a consequence that perpetuates. In that sense everything returns to us or upon us. But that’s not normally how The Circular Economy is thought of.

In essence its aims are the operation of an economy that is self-sustaining based upon resource efficiency. What enters the economy as a product should fulfil its purpose and come the time when its purpose is fulfilled is reabsorbed into what comes next.

Sounds a bit high-falutin doesn’t it?

It’s easier, though maybe not simpler if you imagine the product you use as having:

a) Its period of usefulness extended

b) Its use extended beyond your use

c) An alternate use that will be valuable

d) A means of recovery that allows remanufacture

e) A means of material and component recovery that allows recycling

f) A supply chain that is geared towards recovery and recycling

g) A design that enables all of this.

It is said that 80% of waste is created at the design stage. That places designers at the heart of the issue.

Material scarcity

Resource scarcity is an increasingly publicized issue. Most of us know about the issues involved in mobile phone manufacture but it’s not the only example.

For instance, it is estimated that silver has only 30yrs of availability. It’s not just about jewellery if you consider that catalytic converters use this. If we want to persist with greener cars then we must consider that one of the technologies currently used in greening them relies heavily on silver and will therefore have a significant impact on the environment. It’s a problem that needs new thinking with a solution that does not involve rare metals.

Helium, which most people would consider to be abundant plays a critical role in MRI machines but available reserves are running low. Over 50% of the world supplies come from just two US companies administered by the Federal Helium Program. If the US Congress does not provide additional funding to the FHP by the 7th October Helium production will stop. What then of the MRI machines we have come to rely so much upon?

In all likelihood the funding issue will be resolved but it highlights another issue, the fragility of resource supply chains, a subject we will return to later.

Waste as food

Recovery and recycling considers materials normally disposed of to be the “food” that feeds the manufacture of new products. The intention is that waste is minimised. In fact, nothing is considered waste if it can be recycled in some way. It is fine in principle but let’s consider a few issues.

a) If we continue to allow the waste of edible food on the scale it currently is what makes us think that we will change our ways regarding products and the waste they create? Remember however that a product only becomes a problem of waste when it is no longer used. Note that I said “used” as opposed to “useful”. It may well be perfectly useful to the owner but fashion or upgrades or other lures mean it is used for less than it might be.

Too many times we move on before we need to or should. It’s part of the human condition. Relationships fail, jobs change, homes are moved for many different reasons, but an increasing cause is desire rather than need. We often say “what a waste” when someone does not fulfil their potential but we rarely take it to heart in our own lives and it shouldn’t be so with products.

b) What if we move whole heartedly towards “waste is food” in practice?

If we move on to such an economy what happens if there is a sudden drop in consumption?

Consider this as a scenario. No consumption = no waste = no resources = scarcity= higher costs = reduced consumption.

It becomes a vicious circle if your economy and your resource supply are equally based upon consumption, so is it the complete answer that many have hailed it to be?

Look at China in 2008 and their dependence upon recycled polymers, shipped from the west. They were only able to adjust to our downturn because of the comparative strength of their economy. We don’t have that luxury and nor will China in years to come.

Design and Consumption

Something to ponder. What are we feeding if it’s not consumption and if it’s not consumption where will our supply of recycled material come from?

The general principles expounded by most environmentalists centre on reducing consumption of resources and therefore the impact upon the environment. Coupled with this is the need to reduce environmental damage.

We still however live within a consumer society and as designers how can we design for consumption and not consume resources in the process? The idea of the circular economy seeks to answer this but doesn’t really put its finger on the problem. So what exactly is the problem? It may not fall easily on the ears of the design community.

a.  We consume a lot, but what about that which is lost? For example, the biggest cause of food waste in developing countries is waste through insufficient or improper preservation, transportation and storage. These are all things we in the “developed world” have tackled already but seem unable or unwilling to share with such countries.

b.  It is now widely accepted that plastic bags no longer be disposed of but recycled and like it or not from 2015 we will be required to pay for them.

Even major airlines have taken this on-board (excuse the pun).

After boarding a flight we are often handed an amenity bag containing a few useful items. We are assured that avoiding waste is very important but in practice this means recycling the contents of the bag and if the pen has been used, replacing it.

Good idea, but why bin the pen just because it was used?

Don’t we walk around offices on a daily basis reusing pens? I can’t think of an office where pens are not wrestled over, shared, purloined, re-found, reused. Does a passenger care if the free pen is new or not? I doubt it.

c.  The problem is some things are still considered “Throw-away” when there never has been an “away”. Everything goes somewhere, as others have previously said.

Such a mentality should not exist. Nothing in our so called modern, educated societies should be considered “throw-away” while it is still usable. Take a look at the developing world. Is anything there considered “Throw away”? Necessity dictates that they repair, reuse and remanufacture before they recycle.

Might it be the case that we have elevated recycling as the answer to all our problems when in fact it simply helps us feel better about ourselves while we continue to consume? The problem is; we don’t like “Used”. We like shiny and new and for as long as we designers don’t propose alternatives such as longevity or reuse, we still perpetuate this. That’s the problem.

A circular supply chain

Recovery and recycling is great and most people are now familiar enough with the idea of recycling for it not to be too profound an idea to understand. Recovery is a little different. Recovery allows recycling. If it is impossible to recover the materials within a discarded product then it cannot be efficiently recycled. That is why we are asked to separate our waste and it is why designers are increasingly thinking of material consistency throughout a product as a way of making recovery easier and designing for disassembly as well as assembly.

A new supply chain is emerging to support this. Companies offering specialist material recovery of rare resources are in increasing demand as are more collaborative relationships where information and resources are shared. It is essentially a new business model that considers material supply through to material recovery as equally valuable, equally open to innovation with equal potential.

How about the Chinese entrepreneur who five years ago faced with the appalling pollution of the once picturesque lakes in Southern China decided to do something about it? He “harvested” the algae that was chocking the lakes, reconstituted it and in doing so produced biofuel, the by-product of the process being clean water and cellulose. By heating the cellulose he produced carbon dioxide which directly fed the algae he had harvested. Sound too good to be true? Well it’s all true. Look it up. He took waste and made it food.

If he saw the value in this way of thinking he also had to put in place a supply chain and process that made it possible. It needs some innovative thinking, the sort you should expect of a designer.

If you are reading this as a potential client, have you considered it? If you are considering it do you realize the nature and scale of the problems that will face you? And if you have realized the nature and scale of these problems to whom have you given the responsibility of solving them? It should at the very least involve designers. Trained problem solvers.

Design for all

If it is going to be truly circular then it must consider all. And it’s not just about materials. People are a more important resource.

Abundant? Yes. Precious? Yes.

I trained as a designer. During my college years I had 2 summers which in retrospect were wisely spent. The first was spent in its entirety as an auxiliary nurse, working in a large local hospital, assisting the care of the elderly. I wanted to be more than just the sum of my years and my own experience, else how could I design for others? It was life changing and it should be of no surprise to those who know me that my design career has been centred on highlighting needs and solving problems.

The second summer was spent in an injection moulding factory, operating and maintaining injection moulding machinery in very unpleasant conditions. That I continually direct and advise clients and designers as to what is feasible is in some part down to that experience. I also had great mentors with boundless experience, another example of the circular economy.

What is the lesson?

Try to gain as wide an understanding of all those within that circular economy. If you cannot literally put yourself in their shoes then listen to their advice or the wisdom of others.

As a client you expect good design, design that will be valuable to the user, your customer. You should demand it. Likewise demand that it be valuable in its own way to the production line worker, the maintenance man, the remanufacturer, the material recoverer and the recycler.

Simplicity versus complexity

We could go an extra step and just simplify products.

Think of a product with half the number of components as previously, just one main material and half as many screws (already a cliché). It’s not an impossible dream or an unfeasible proposition but it’s not really on the radar of most producers or designers when it should be. It makes good business sense if nothing else.

Again out of economic necessity and a recognition that not everything on offer is useful there are those who are adopting what is known as “Lean Design”, design with the complexity reduced to a level where only that which is valuable remains.

It can be seen in reengineered products for the developing world with simpler and in the case of medical devices, safer interfaces. It would be good if some of it made its way back here.

But simplified doesn’t mean unsophisticated and people don’t choose to buy complexity. If a product fulfils their wants and needs then they will generally be happy. They may wish to add personalisation but that’s a choice for them to make. If producers allow it, again there isn’t a problem. We should keep it simple.

Simplicity is difficult though

A poor cook like me can make an edible meal if I have access to a wide range of ingredients that I can throw in, plenty of time to do it and no one looking over my shoulder. It’s edible, (needful) sometimes tasty (desirable) but it costs more, is inevitably wasteful and you should see the mess left behind. It’s also NOT GOOD to test it on someone who’s paying for it or before anyone else you might be ashamed. Get the picture?

Nor should it be the case with any product. The products we design should be simpler not more complex. Try it and you’ll find it’s more difficult than you imagine.

Also, be very certain you have the skills and experience, a recipe that’s simple, ingredients that are readily obtainable and the awareness that you are responsible for the outcome. As I said, simplicity is difficult.


Remember I said earlier; “that it makes good business sense, If nothing else”. Well here’s the “nothing else”.

It’s called Responsibility.

By way of an introduction we’ve talking loosely about the Circular Economy but everything starts and ends somewhere. Responsibility starts with you. We own the decisions we make. Make your decisions based upon that principle and you will make a difference, changes that may live beyond you.

© Joseph O’Connor 2013

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