VIDEO: RSA design chief: ‘Waste has to redefine itself for circular world’

A leading circular economy expert has challenged the waste industry to reinvent itself, claiming it is in a powerful position to take advantage of changing resource dynamics in the latest of our Resource Revolution leader interviews.

Sophie Thomas, co-director of design at the RSA and one of the founders of the Great Recovery Project says that the waste sector is “either on the cusp of something great or the edge of cliff” depending on how fast it can react to resource efficiency pressures.

According to Thomas, greater collaboration between the start-of-life and end-of-life industries could help accelerate circular economy transition.
“Having a discussion between design and end-of-life for me is the most interesting area for opportunity,” she said.

“Very rarely do [designers] have conversations with the resource management sector and also the materials sector – there is a great synergy that could be brought together that will help a lot of the process and flow for circular systems.”

Thomas maintains that waste “is a design flaw” and that “we build in the life of a product when we design it” but that this must change. “No-one really seems to be designing for a system which actually picks [the product] up and takes it to another place. For me, that’s fundamentally where designers can improve things, we are in a position where we can specify the materials, we can understand how long a product lives with the user, where it ends up.”

It is thought that 80% of a product’s environmental impact is locked in at the design phase, and the work the Great Recovery Project has been doing is to scrutinise this impact and facilitate action to unlock it.
“If you switch that 80% to a positive you end up with a very powerful design industry that can really change the way things flow through,” Thomas explained.

“Some of the information we’ve been gathering from the Great Recovery workshops is that there’s plenty of opportunity to design in something where there is a positive outcome – it’s about the system thinking behind the product and the material flow as well as the information flow.”

Sponsored by FCC Environment, the interview series comprises eight video interviews with stakeholders from all points in the circular economy. The sixth leader interview will follow next week, featuring the waste contractor perspective with FCC Environment.

View previous interviews:

The SME Leader perspective – Commercial Group

The Manufacturer perspective – Unilever

The Waste Contractor perspective – FCC Environment

The Local Authority perspective – Somerset Waste Partnership

The Brand Leader perspective – Coca Cola Enterprises

The Retail perspective – John Lewis Partnership

The Thought Leader perspective – Peter Jones

The interviews incorporate learning from our recently-published White Paper ‘Closing the loop: risk or reward’. You can download your copy here.

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