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Why the circular economy calls for rethinking design

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By Stephen M. Roberts

For many of us, “trash” has a pretty specific meaning – it’s the stuff we throw away because it doesn’t have value to us anymore. But what if it did? What if more things were designed to be reused or easily recycled? What if more things were built using recycled materials? What if we didn’t even need more “things?”

These are some of the critical questions being asked by proponents of the circular economy – a different way of thinking about the economic system.

What is the circular economy?

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the circular economy is to think about its opposite: the linear economy. That’s the dominant model today – an unsustainable one-way conveyor belt of “take-make-waste” in which resources are harvested, transformed into goods we use, and then get to landfills or otherwise left outside the economy. In a world where the population is growing, the consumption-oriented middle class is expanding and the challenges of climate change are omnipresent, we cannot afford to keep this up.

The circular economy, by contrast, reuses and recycles materials, producing little waste.

By looking at the whole system, treating all materials as valuable, and shifting to new marketplace models that minimize the amount of resources needed in the first place, the circular economy is based on resource productivity and how we can get the most from what we use. Waste gets designed out of the system.

Key concepts

Recycling and reuse certainly play a key role in the circular economy. It’s not about filling up a blue bin, however. We all need to rethink design, looking across the whole life cycle of products to maximize the value we can get out of all that goes into it. By designing with repair, reuse and recyclability in mind, engineers can prime the circular system – making it easier for materials to recirculate.

As a key part of that, the recycling industries need to grow and become more intertwined with the production process – recycling doesn’t work if those materials do not get reused again in some way.

Transitioning to a circular economy won’t succeed if all we do is improve recycling, however. We need to further rethink how value is delivered in the marketplace. Examples from the sharing economy point the way: Car2Go – which offers a fleet of cars that can be booked using a smart phone – helps maximize the value of a vehicle by taking advantage of the fact most of us only spend a small portion of the day driving. Interface Carpets is another: they do not sell carpet tiles – they lease them and take back the worn ones for recycling.

Technology will also play a key role. Cloud services and mobile technology already enable us to do much more while relying on shared data center infrastructures. Meanwhile, machine-to-machine communication and the Internet of Things and the ability to collect and analyze big data are radically transforming the way we monitor resources, identify efficiencies and reinvent systems.

Benefits of a circular economy

The good news is this transformation has a tremendous amount of potential. The system has to get leaner, but the place for that “trimming” is in the material resources, not in the human labor. In fact, the circular economy will need an influx of innovative entrepreneurs who can provide new services, fill gaps in the infrastructure, and otherwise drive new ways of delivering value.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading voice on the circular economy, has estimated that a full-fledged shift could generate an estimated $1 trillion per year in value while U.K. government estimates suggest the shift would create 400,000 new jobs in Europe alone.

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