In recent years, we’ve seen plenty of designers make beautiful things out of what others consider as waste. Their work is inspiring and necessary, especially considering that trash is one of the most abundant materials on the planet today. Greenpeace has found, for example, that there are already 500 times more microplastics in the ocean than there are stars in the galaxy. Meanwhile less than 1% of all the clothing we consume is recycled, and nearly 40% of all food is spoiled or lost before it even reaches the market.

All of this waste takes an enormous toll on the planet, accelerating climate change as it threatens both natural ecosystems and human health. Tackling this problem requires creative solutions that change how things are managed upstream as well as downstream — and the circular economy is a concept which gives us the tools to do so. This is why What Design Can Do recently launched the Make it Circular Challenge in partnership with the IKEA Foundation: a creative competition focused on making a circular future more accessible and appealing. As part of our deep dive into the subject, today we’re exploring how designers can create new value out of old things — and why recycling is only one part of the picture.


When we think of pollution, we often imagine a towering landfill or a river filled with plastic. But waste is not always visible, and materials are not always recyclable. Part of building a circular economy is learning to see value in all kinds of underutilised resources, from unworn clothes to lost technologies and underrepresented people. Recovering, refurbishing, reusing and repairing are all important strategies here. To close the loop from both ends, a lot of innovation can and must happen within these ‘limits’.

Part of building a circular economy is learning to see value in all kinds of underutilised resources.

Creatives should see this as an invitation to experiment and develop solutions with what is already existing or readily available in their environment. This relates to tangible things like materials and tools, but also to ways of knowing and living. Many people around the world, including Indigenous communities, are already masters at living within planetary boundaries. It’s important to centre their experiences and wisdom wherever we can. Looking back, past generations have also been much more mindful of their waste and consumption, using what they had for a longer time. Learning from these examples can help inspire a different future without needing to rely on all new technologies or ideas.


There are many examples of designs that reroute value from the end of one chain to beginning another. Think about using food waste to make new materials, 3D printing objects with recycled plastic, or mining old electronics for precious metals. Then there are also circular projects that focus on changing the way we think about prosperity, abundance and novelty. For example, wearing second-hand 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. These are the types of changes that we need to design for. Here are a few more examples of disruptive products, systems and services that are already making a difference today.

Return to sender


Did you know that nearly 50% of all fast fashion is thrown away within a year of purchase? Numbers like these place a heavy burden on both people and planet, in ways that disproportionately impact the most vulnerable in society. Buzigahill is a Ugandan clothing brand that uses circular design techniques to highlight the true cost and impact of the global fashion industry. Their first collection, Return to Sender, is made entirely of waste textiles sourced from Uganda’s secondhand markets. In the process, piles of clothing are pulled apart, stitched back together, and then redistributed to the Global North, where they were originally discarded. 

Each finished garment is unique and carries a label that identifies its country of origin and provenance. In this way Buzigahill’s impact is not just about making use of an existing waste stream — but also documenting the power structures implicated in its flow. 

Swap, don’t shop


One of the most powerful ways to divert waste from landfill is to make the shift towards a sharing economy. This means making it easier for people to borrow and lend products rather than buying and trashing them. In the Netherlands, Peerby is an app-based service that lets neighbours do just that with household electronics and tools. 

Launched in 2012, Peerby’s ‘sharing shed’ is now filled with over half a million products that can be accessed by members for free, or for a small fee. This hyperlocal approach to sharing means that perfectly good resources are allowed to circulate rather than gather dust at the back of a drawer or the bottom of a dumpster.

Food for thought

Colaboratory Kitchen

The staggering amount of food waste that is produced globally has a lot to do with modern practices of farming, cooking and eating. Colaboratory Kitchen is a project based in Mexico that brings producers, scientists, creatives and chefs together to connect, exchange knowledge and imagine a food system that is fair and circular.

They do this through activities like community cook-outs, foraging trips and art workshops that are focused on reviving local and traditional wisdom. Looking to the region’s rich culinary history as inspiration, they ask questions like: How do we bridge scientific and local knowledge when it comes to agriculture? What does regenerative farming look like in this day and age? And how can creativity help reconnect people with the food that sustains them? These kinds of conversations are essential as they remind us that building a better future requires both innovation as well as rediscovery.

Presented by the Make it Circular Challenge, this article is the third in a three-part series exploring the practices and possibilities of circular design. Read more on this topic here.