ANALYSIS: Designs on waste in a durable world

Moves are being made to forge greater alliances between reprocessors and product designers which could see material optimisation prioritised over waste minimisation.

As thinking around circular economics starts to filter down into waste and resource management, there is a growing realisation that future efficiencies around material use need to shift from end-of-life to start-of-life, with the design element holding the key to product longevity as well as closed loop recovery.

According to Nat Hunter, co-director of design at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), designers and engineers consciously or unconsciously determine 80% of a product’s environmental impact through the decisions they make – and many need greater understanding and training to incorporate closed loop thinking into their processes.

This lack of awareness is in part because many designers don’t question their product briefs, but also because there is a real disconnect between the different stages of a product’s life journey – designers and recovery merchants have never really engaged.

It is an issue that the Green Alliance and Ellen MacArthur Foundation have both flagged up. Research undertaken by them has noted a pressing need for new approaches to design in response to the problems caused by linear manufacture. But if these strategies are to work, they will need to involve all stakeholders along the value chain – with reprocessors and material recyclers perhaps the most vital cog.

To address this, Hunter along with her colleague Sophie Thomas are spearheading The Great Recovery Project, a two-year joint venture funded by the RSA and the Government’s Technology Strategy Board to inspire and promote the co-creation of circular economy manufacturing models through collaborative working.

Its aim in the first instance will be to build professional networks to get designers, materials and packaging scientists, manufacturers and recycling experts in the same room, talking together. From this a number of demonstration projects will take flight, illustrating how products could be better designed and disassembled for reuse and remanufacture.

According to Hunter, such pioneering work could redefine how the waste industry operates. “If you look at the circular economy, it’s less about resource efficiency and more about resource effectiveness – it’s about how you optimise materials so they last longer,” she told edie.

She added that the area where circular economy thinking begins to overlap into resource efficiency was just starting to be explored and could throw up some interesting questions around current sustainable packaging models, such as lightweighting.

“It might be that a heavier material is actually better to use because it has less of a carbon impact, or you can extract more value from it at its end-of-life in terms of reuse or recovery,” she said.

So as product durability rises up the political agenda, with repair and reuse feeding into that, will recyclability begin to take a back seat? Well over the next 18 months, the outcomes of this project will feed into the recently launched Circular Economy Taskforce – if ministers like what they hear, it could well have implications for future policy.

Where this leaves the waste industry remains to be seen, but encouragingly there are real signs now that the sector realises it needs to change. Only last month the Environmental Services Association (ESA) published a report highlighting the need for better product design – if the industry can engage effectively and work with key stakeholders to be part of a more circular world, it will have a tremendous future.

Maxine Perella

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