ANALYSIS: Labouring over the birth of a circular economy

The complexities of delivering a circular economy are starting to reveal themselves as moves to translate the ideology into practice get underway.

Over the past few months organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the RSA's Great Recovery Project have been hosting 'teardown labs' where everyday objects - from electric toothbrushes to washing machines - are disassembled by peer-to-peer groups including designers, material scientists and reprocessors to explore how they can be re-designed better for greater durability and recovery.

These workshops not only offer the opportunity to examine current design flaws and sketch out new ways of thinking, but crucially bring key stakeholders along the value chain together to participate in hands-on collaboration.

According to the RSA's co-director of design Nat Hunter who is leading teardown sessions on behalf of the organisation, designing for a circular economy is nothing if not complex. On her blog on the Great Recovery website, she says: "Gone are the days of sustainable or eco design, when a simple change of material to a recycled alternative would give a project environmental credibility.

"Now, in order to understand all the facets of the problem, we need to talk to each of the stakeholders involved in the lifecycle of a particular product. Brands and designers are going to have to work hand in hand with consumers to change consumption models."

One participant who has been getting his hands dirty during the teardowns is Mark Shayler, an eco-designer and founder of Ticketyboo. He likens the sessions to "shock therapy" for designers.

"What quickly becomes clear is the fact that environment in any form, let alone designing for the circular economy, is rarely, if at all, part of the brief. And here's the interesting thing, designers don't question this," he tells edie.

"They are some of the most imaginative, inventive people, but they fail to question basic principles. This needs addressing. And it needs addressing soon."

Shayler adds that the first step to changing behaviour should start with a long hard look at the linear economy our society operates within, and the scale of challenge it poses.

"Designers shudder to think that the work they do, the passion they put into products, the thought and care, would end up as waste in under a year. But it does. This is a sobering experience and gets designers thinking, questioning what they do," he maintains.

It's not only current practice that is being questioned, but language too. A mild storm is brewing around some of the terminology used to describe this new circular landscape as it unfolds, particularly over the type of loops at play - whether they are closed, open, or continuous.

Some argue that a closed loop system is in fact, too closed and shuts out the opportunity to capture resources from other waste streams outside of it. Open loop systems go one step further, according to Interface's sustainability director Ramon Arratia. His company is operating such a system by scavenging waste from other unrelated industries and transforming it into a value driver for its own supply chain.

Whether closed or open, most would agree that resources need to continually flow in a circular fashion - the precise paths of which are still being navigated depending on what the desired end-destination is. For instance, designing for less material use (lightweighting or resource efficiency) will follow different flow routes than designing for material optimisation (durability or resource effectiveness).

As work continues to calculate flow methodologies and testbed disassembly strategies, the most likely outcome is that a spectrum of feasible models will result. These may be aligned with different product groups, such as fast moving consumer goods which have more of a disposable element to them then say, bulky items of furniture or motor vehicles.

Crucially whatever transpires, these new models, as Hunter points out, "will need to be embraced, understood and communicated by tomorrow's designers". And that level of engagement will need to travel right through the lifeblood of the product lifecycle.

Maxine Perella

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