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Understanding the Circular Economy

Recently, other members of the design team and I have attended a series of online courses offered by TU Delft University in order to expand our knowledge of advanced design philosophies, and help us to deliver relevant and effective products across a wide range of market sectors. I chose to study ‘Circular Economy: An Introduction’. This article explores the meaning behind the circular economy and how we can interpret this principle to deliver integrated product for our Clients.

What is the circular economy? 

At a glance, the circular economy refers to an economy that strives to prolong the service life of resources for as long as possible; whilst extracting their maximum customer, environmental and business value before their end-of-life. The materials are then recycled through environmentally friendly and economically viable technical and biological waste streams.

Currently, businesses generally works within a linear economy framework where “sell more, sell faster” is the dominant principle. A linear economy depends on cheap materials, cheap energy and cheap credit to prosper, all of which are up for questioning. Fossil fuels, food and water resources are becoming increasingly hard to get, and biodiversity is in decline worldwide, yet natural resources are still being exploited at an alarming rate.

How to design products for the circular economy?

When we think about the circular economy, we often think about recycling. In the circular economy, recycling of products for their raw materials, although important, is seen as a last resort. The Inertia Principle by Walter Stahel describes the hierarchy of the different procedures that can be put in place to extend the lifetime of a product whilst keeping it at its maximum material and economic value.

The aim should be to keep a product within the upper regions of the pyramid for as long as possible. In order for a product to fully exploit this principle, the following design considerations must be made.

  • Design for durability – Is about developing products that are resistant to the ‘wear and tear’ they are likely to face throughout their lifetime. This can be achieved through material and assembly considerations.
  • Design for standardisation and compatibility: Aims to utilise universal, widely understood components to maximise repairability and remanufacturing value. This is often achieved by utilising off-the-shelf components.
  • Designing for maintenance and repair: Refers to making it as easy as possible for the user or service provider to maintain and repair the product in order to extend its lifetime. This might include providing clear and accessible maintenance manuals and parts catalogues or by providing a maintenance service package with the product.
  • Design for upgradability and adaptability: Refers to the design of products and services which accommodate upgrades and adaptions helping the product/service to stay relevant in the face of change. This can be achieved by providing extended software support and upgraded components.
  • Design for dis- and reassembly: Refers to the ability to take apart and reassemble products to safely and easily access components and materials for repair, remanufacturing and recycling. This is achieved by minimising the number of materials used and through tactile and simple assembly methods (e.g. avoiding the use of adhesives).

How can business value be created in the circular economy?

A circular product, if executed effectively, can promote business growth and diversification. This can be achieved via the following methods:

Sourcing value: Refers to all types of economic gains, cost reductions and savings that can arise from a circular economy – these could come from: 1). Reductions in material costs incurred by usage of reclaimed or recycled parts and materials. 2). Selling additional services such as maintenance plans and disposal schemes. 3). Continued ownership of the product (in service-based models) allowing resale onto second-hand markets.

Customer value: Refers to improvements in the service provided to the customer, these include: 1). Increased customer loyalty – an example of this in action is product return schemes that give customers incentives to return their product to the company for remanufacturing, repair or recycling. 2). Better customer satisfaction – In a circular economy it is in both the customer and business’ interest to provide a high-quality service. 3). Superior brand protection.

Environmental value: Refers to benefits from improved ecological footprints such as: 1). Ease of compliance. 2). Improved green image. 3). Reductions in running costs (in service models).

Informational value: Refers to business value gained through gathering data on production, usage patterns, failure rates and useful lifetime of the product. This enables: 1). Product development to better fit the user and the business model. 2). Better traceability. 3). Stronger customer relationships.

In gaining advanced knowledge about product design within a circular economy, we are able to offer our Clients more environmentally responsible, user-centred products with high-value business plans. If you would like to find out how we can help support your next design project, please email gethin@iterate-uk.com or call 01291 408283.

Imagery with thanks to TU Delft University and Ellen MacArthur Foundation.