Locksmiths required to design out waste

Around 80% of a product's environmental impact is locked in at the design stage. If we can find the key, we are well on the way to creating a circular economy, maintains Sophie Thomas

In 2011, I joined a UK government mission to the Netherlands to study Dutch strategies for designing out landfill. The Dutch introduced a ban on landfill in 1995 and are now pioneering new approaches to resource efficiency. Our visit took us to facilities that sorted, recovered and managed resource (or waste, as we were still defining it in the UK).

One of these facilities recycled fridges and freezers, and I was struck by the variety of models being processed. Every single appliance was different. This meant that every time a disassembler tried to get the valuable compressor out from the back of a fridge before it was crushed, a new set of challenges arose, with different sizes and types of screws, fittings and frames all blocking the way.

It made me think that if fridge designers were to work alongside disassemblers, they would see with their own eyes the problems inherent in their designs. Perhaps we would have better fridges and better designers as a result.

Waste affects every part of our society. A staggering 98% of the resources that flow into the economy end up as waste within only six months. The UK alone produces about 290m tonnes of waste a year. While there have been significant improvements in the UK’s recycling rates in the past decade, we are still losing valuable streams of resource into landfill.

The problem is exacerbated by what organic chemist Mike Pitts has called the “ecological rucksack” of materials used to make a product. Innocuous objects such as plastic toothbrushes are heavier than expected, with more than 1.5kg of material used in production. Even a simple A4 piece of white paper requires 10 litres of water to produce.

Design sits at the heart of the challenge to create a circular economy. Approximately 80% of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at the design stage, so understanding production cycles and reconfiguring them for maximum effectiveness is key. We cannot simply substitute one material for another without understanding the consequences.

Designing in this way is complex. 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. This system calls for investigation into materials at a molecular scale. It demands true co-creation, with all stakeholders involved in the lifecycle of a particular product. Finally, it requires a new logistical approach to capturing and recirculating materials.

This effort needs to be led by businesses. At the moment, it is rare to see a company setting a design brief that includes requirements to recover material. Now, however, the business model is changing and the economic imperative for recovery is growing stronger.

In this context, the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) is launching a programme called the Great Recovery. Run in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board, with support from industrial players, it will seek to fill the knowledge and innovation gaps associated with designing for a circular-economy model.

We will start by building a community of designers and connecting them with networks of scientists, business leaders, academics, manufacturers and materials recyclers. Over the course of the programme, we will run a series of demonstration projects, many of which will be hosted at recovery centres, to discover how ‘problem products’ could be better designed. We will also collect data to help identify opportunities and challenges, and will use this information as the foundation for developing new industrial-education programmes.

Future phases will take the lessons learnt to businesses, the government, education and, ultimately, consumers. This way, we will ensure that everyone who has a role or an influence in the lifecycle of a product understands how they can play their part in redesigning the future.

This article can be read in full here

Sophie Thomas is co-director of design at the RSA

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie