Timely tips on designing for circularity

Beth Rattner, Biomimicry Institute
Time Into Pixels Photography
Beth Rattner, executive director of the Biomimicry Institute, reminds us that countless organizations have had tremendous success borrowing from nature as a way of generating new and valuable ideas.

Someday, when we’re on the other side of this, we’ll look back on today’s "take, make, waste" economy and recognize it as a cautionary tale of incomplete design that failed to look beyond its immediate consequences.

But in order to get to that place, we have lots of redesign work to do, not just of individual products and services, but of our entire way of looking at, and our entire system of dealing with materials. Perhaps Ashima Sukhdev, who leads the Government and Cities Program at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, nailed it when she told attendees of last week’s Circularlity 19, "Waste is created at the design stage."

Conference attendees looking to learn how to design waste-free products and services received a lot of helpful guidance along those lines throughout the conference from a broad array of experts and trailblazers.

The first step is recognizing the value of designing for circularity at a time when the world is still mostly linear. As Adam Gendell, associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, said during the Circular Packaging 101 tutorial at the conference, "When you design for recovery, you grow your own feedstock."

A matter of materials

How exactly does one design for recovery? One excellent resource for considering that question is the Association of Plastic Recyclers’ "Design for Recycling Guide." While the guide is focused primarily on packaging concerns, many of the same principles could be applied to any recyclable plastic items. The label "circular" in the context of the guide refers to items that are renewably sourced, which generally means plant-based, or that are recycled inputs as well as being recyclable themselves.

Sometimes making an item circular is a matter of changing materials. For example, 3M has redesigned its Scotch-Brite sponges several times, most recently using 50 percent plant-based agave fibers, which makes it more circular.

The new greener sponge sells for the same price as its less-green predecessor. However, cautions Gendell, if you’re designing for recovery, simply changing materials may not be sufficient.

You should really "consider the flow through a materials recovery facility" (MRF) as you contemplate your new waste-free design, Gendell said. Even though a material might be technically recyclable, the size and shape of the item or the combination of the material and its color could make the item less desirable to recyclers. If recyclers do not want an item, it will end up in the landfill, along with your organization’s good intentions.

Scotch-Brite sponge
3M
3M has redesigned its Scotch-Brite sponges several times, most recently using 50 percent plant-based agave fibers, which makes it more circular.
Some examples include opaque and dark-colored polyethylene terephthalate (PET), very small or pointed objects or very thin, flexible items. Small items can fall through cracks, and flexible items can tangle in the gears. Most demand for PET is for transparent bottles, which cannot be made from opaque feedstock. Someday, when we have better chemical recycling options, those colors can be separated out, but for most materials, that’s a topic (and an opportunity) for another day. Meanwhile, opaque and dark-colored high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) have no problem finding markets.

Back to the drawing board

In other cases, the product must be rethought entirely before it can become circular. Of course, even though that’s more work, it also represents a tremendous opportunity, according to design experts speaking at Circularity 19.

Chris Krohn, program manager at OpenIdeo, talks about "creating a disproportionate impact through design." Among the relevant questions he suggests designers ponder: Can your product do more and affect less? Can it be made of fewer parts? How about a single material?

Consider the ubiquitous spray bottle used in everything from window cleaner to stain removers. The presence of a steel spring jams up the recycling process. But a new version using a plastic spring will breeze right through. At the same time, that design is compatible with a wider range of products.

Similarly, multilayer films and laminates are not recycle-friendly. Can a single material do the job? If you’re starting with a clean sheet, then why not look to nature for inspiration? After all, nature already has figured out ways to do just about everything we’re trying to do and does them all sustainably without waste.

Beth Rattner, executive director of the Biomimicry Institute, suggests the Ask Nature web page, which cross-references hundreds of natural solutions by function. Type in "recycling" and get dozens of suggestions ranging from "metabolism induces formation of calcium carbonate" to "fungal root rot renews forest." While those principles might not sound as if they pertain to your product, you might be surprised what you’ll find.

Another important lesson to learn from nature: While the periodic table has 118 elements, nature only uses a handful. Why? So that the vast diversity of living organisms can nourish each other. Countless organizations have had tremendous success using biomimicry as a way of generating new and valuable ideas. For example, Velcro was inspired by a thistle burr, and wind turbines tightly spaced following the example of fish schools, resulting in improved efficiency.

Getting designers to think differently

Target worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to train its 1,000 designers on the principles of circular design. All designers received the same course, which emphasized material choice, durability, repairability and recyclability.

A common refrain heard throughout the Circularity 19 conference was that "there is no silver bullet," each product must be considered based on its own unique characteristics. In some cases, regional, national or other factors, such as recycling capabilities or regulations also could influence design choices and at times could result in multiple versions.

For example, Sam Davenport, a furniture maker (57th St Design), offers a "circulated" option to customers, where they pledge to buy the refurbished item back at a fair price, with store credit, at any time in any condition. But the company also provides a non-circulated version, at a higher price, for those that prefer an all-new item.

Businesses taking back items from customers, as Target has done with its car seats, want product designs that emphasize durability, repairability and design for disassembly. If they can anticipate which elements will wear out and make those easily replaceable, their circular supply chain will run more smoothly.

Some companies, such as Caterpillar and Xerox, have been remanufacturing products for decades — well before the circular terminology came into being. The Remade Institute, which includes both companies, continues to research solutions to pinch points that make remanufacturing difficult, such as improving separation and repair techniques, as well as teaching Design for Remanufacturing.

But it’s not just heavy equipment makers taking back products when their customers are done with them. Clothing and outdoor equipment brands such as Acteryx and REI are jumping into the recommerce game, leveraging the inherent durability designed into their products.

An opportunity to differentiate

One surely could write an entire book on the question of Designing for Circularity, but we would be remiss if we didn’t take a step back and consider the question in a broader way. As President Dwight Eisenhower famously said, "Whenever I run into a problem I can't solve, I always make it bigger." So perhaps designing a product for the circular economy shouldn’t just be about making your product recyclable. Maybe it would make more sense to make the item compostable or infinitely reusable.

But if we make the problem bigger, as Ike suggests, maybe the whole system needs to change. That’s the conclusion TerraCycle founder and CEO Tom Szaky came to when he thought about the world he would like to live in.

Loop packagingNot convinced that recycling really addresses the root cause of waste, TerraCycle came up with the Loop program that launched in May in the United States and France. Loop literally throws away the idea of single-use containers, recyclable or not. Szaky pointed out that as companies work to make their packaging cheaper, there is an ever-diminishing amount of value for recyclers to even bother with. It appears to be a one-way street towards a dead-end.

With Loop, participating brands, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Nestlé, Mars, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, are battling to outdo one another with beautifully designed reusable packages that can be refilled. Buy your ice cream in a beautiful and durable stainless-steel tin. When you are done, a pickup can be arranged in a specially designed tote, and the container is cleaned and returned to be refilled.

Taking it up another level, Eva Gladek, founder and CEO of Metabolic, would like us to have a look at what Charlotte, North Carolina is doing — where the city is redesigning many local systems with circularity in mind.

For example, the city is committed to the goal of zero waste, as put forth in its Circular Charlotte initiative. The plan involves innovative elements such as using food waste to feed insects, which are then fed to poultry, or transforming demolition concrete and waste glass into new concrete. Not only do both projects, and others like them, clean up the environment, they also create jobs. Likewise, architect Will McDonough’s Park 20/20 plan describes a city that is beautiful, highly livable and that can feed and power itself.

Perhaps these examples of circular design could serve as benchmarks for aspiring circular designers. Once your new green designs start to exhibit multiple synergistic benefits, you know you’re on the right track. If it doesn’t, then perhaps you need to deep deeper or think bigger.