Today we live in a world that’s bursting at the seams with stuff: households with a television in each room; city streets packed with idle cars; and dumpsters bloated with takeaway containers. But while people shop and companies cash in, the planet is running out of resources far quicker than it can replenish them.
This is one reason why making the transition to a circular society is one of the major challenges — and opportunities — facing our generation. At What Design Can Do we believe that creatives can play a major role in this shift, especially in terms of changing how we produce the goods and services we use everyday. This is why we recently launched the Make it Circular Challenge in partnership with the IKEA Foundation: a creative competition seeking the best that circular design has to offer. As part of our deep dive into the subject, today we’re looking at how designers can prevent waste by slowing down, taking the long view, and keeping products and materials in use for longer.
DESIGN TO LAST
More often than not, conversations about climate change will focus on issues like pollution and carbon emissions. However, neither of these things are the actual cause of the problem. They are symptoms of a broken system — one that is based on the linear economy, and is reflected in the way we make our products, grow our food and build our cities.
Since the industrial revolution, most things have been designed to fit this linear model, which treats natural resources as something we can take, use briefly and then throw away. In Europe and Northern America, where consumption rates are at their highest, this pattern has created an appetite for fast and cheap items, and a never-ending quest for novelty. Where design was once used to increase a product’s quality and functionality, today it is often used to cut costs and boost profits. Think about the planned obsolescence of your smartphone, the misleading expiry labels on your groceries or the single-use coffee pods in your kitchen cupboard. In this shiny new reality, old has become a dirty word.
By embedding circular principles into the creative process, we can extend the life cycles of objects, and shift what people see as valuable and desirable.
Fortunately, everything that has been designed can be redesigned. By embedding circular principles into the creative process, we can extend the life cycles of objects, and shift what people see as valuable and desirable. The first step is a change in mindset, and understanding that what is designed today needs to last for a long time — 50 years rather than five. Whether you are creating an ad campaign or building an apartment block, ask yourself: what kind of environmental and social impact will it have on future generations? Are the materials you use recycled as well as recyclable? Is it easy to repair? Can your design have value beyond its useful life: for example by allowing it to be updated or adapted for other users or functions?
CIRCULAR STRATEGIES IN ACTION
If we can change the way we design things — from quick fixes to long-term solutions — the ecological benefits would be enormous. At the same time, we can make our lives better by reframing our understanding of abundance, growth and prosperity. In this kind of society, secondhand clothes can be seen as a badge of pride instead of something to hide. Sharing appliances with your neighbours can become the norm instead of buying your own. Here are a few more examples of resilient products, systems and services that are already making a difference today.
Toothbrushes made better
The creators of Everloop decided to take action after learning that four billion plastic toothbrushes end up in landfill every year. This is largely because conventional toothbrushes are the epitome of disposable design, with an average lifespan of only 3 months. The innovation they came up with is simple but effective: breaking up the handle and the brush head into two detachable parts. A hinge mechanism allows the user to easily replace the bristles whenever needed, without having to trash the entire product.
The designers also chose to use materials that can be embedded in cycles rather than straight lines. The toothbrush is made from recycled post-consumer plastics and the bristles are made from bamboo. By avoiding the use of any plastic on these bamboo components, they’ve made them 100% compostable. The result? Significantly less waste, and an average lifespan of at least 2 years.
In what seems like the blink of an eye, electronic waste has become the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. This year alone, nearly 50 billion kilos of it will end up in landfill, thanks to how quickly the market moves and how conditioned consumers have become to devices that are easy to break and hard to repair. Repeat Audio is part of a new generation of companies (like Fairphone and Framework) who are trying to change the industry with modular products that can be infinitely repaired or recycled.
Repeat’s headphones are made in such a way that damaged components can be sent back to the company for refurbishment, and replaced independently. The start-up is also exploring ways to move beyond the traditional buy-use-waste model, offering monthly subscriptions for people who would prefer to rent rather than own their headphones. Users can even count on unlimited, lifelong repairs. What’s not to love?
Overtreders W is a Dutch architecture studio led by Hester van Dijk and Reinder Bakker. The duo are known for their experimental approach and their spectacular, demountable buildings. Rather than working towards finished products, they view themselves as material choreographers, who prefer to borrow resources from the Earth rather than own them. Their designs usually consist of flexible, biobased modules that can be easily separated, disassembled, reused and/or composted. This way, each component is guaranteed as many life cycles as possible without turning into something we call waste.
Overtreders W also make a point to choose materials that strengthen both local ecosystems and the regional economy. Notable projects include a 100% biodegradable pavilion for the Floriade Expo 2022, which featured reclaimed timber frames, dyed hempcrete walls and pathways lined with oyster shells from nearby fishing villages. Plastic and steel are only ever used when they are both recycled and recyclable, as was the case in the temporary barn they created for the Lowlands Festival in 2018 (pictured above).
Presented by the Make it Circular Challenge, this article is the first in a three-part series exploring the practices and possibilities of circular design. Read more on this topic here.