The Circular Economy: Tighter Loops
The circular economy was designed as a financial system that could form part of a solution for the world’s ecological challenges. Its goal is to reduce environmental impacts and generate economic growth by reusing materials and eliminating waste and pollution, moving away from the consumption of finite resources and towards the regeneration of natural systems. Circular systems are an alternative to the current “take-make-waste” extractive model, in which manufactured products’ life cycles end with their disposal in a landfill. In addition to mitigating the negative impacts of the current model, the circular economy is a system that can create economic opportunities and benefit the environment and society as a whole. The information that follows will explore one of the main pillars of the circular economy: keeping materials and products in use. This means retaining, repairing, and getting more out of materials, and the embedded energy expended in processing.
At the initial design phase, important decisions are made that can impact whether the final product will eventually be sent to a landfill or whether it will be repaired and reused. Designers need to consider how a product will be used and what will happen to it after use—as well as the emissions, contaminants, and water involved in production. Products and materials that can later be disassembled and reused contribute to both the elimination of waste and the reduction of primary material consumption.
The circular economy and the raw materials, processed materials, products, and waste streams involved are often described in terms of theoretical closed loops, or cycles. These loops are designed intentionally in order to regenerate, restore, and add value at every step. However, they aren’t airtight—the image of a perfectly closed loop assumes control over every step in wider, real world systems, which is not very realistic for now. Instead, they are a bit leakier, accounting for as much as possible while working to enable positive impacts at each stage of the process. But there is no definitive roadmap for designing a perfect waste- and pollution-free product that is kept in use for years. There is a lot of room for designers and manufacturers to innovate and develop new methods and strategies. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, developed the circular economy system diagram shown below to visualize the various possible loops for renewables and finite materials.
A common misconception about the circular economy is that it is recycling on steroids—that circularity is mainly about waste management and materials recovery. Instead, circular systems prefer tighter cycles that prolong products’ lifespans by designing for durability, maintenance, and repair above recycling, which requires much higher energy costs. Recycling is certainly an important process in the circular economy, but it demands that products be reduced to their basic materials in order to be remade into new products. This entails a significant loss of labor, embedded energy, and materials, as well as the costs of manufacturing entirely new products. That’s why recycling is displayed as the outer loop in the system diagram—and each successive loop inward represents a more advantageous strategy. Designers looking to move towards circular design should start with these inner loops, which include reuse, sharing, repair, and remanufacturing. This means designing for disassembly at every level. For example, architects should design buildings with materials that can be easily maintained and disassembled for reuse upon demolition. It also means that companies need to learn to select effective materials and use standardized components that account for waste and byproducts. Durability is also an important factor, since circularity also aims to maximize the time spent in each cycle, as well as the number of cycles. Design for the circular economy requires a double focus—both on the user and the entire system in which the product will live. It means understanding how a product can fit into feedback loops and its other systemic implications, all without losing sight of user needs. It’s a cyclical process that leads to constant improvements. As the entire system changes and progresses, there will always be new ways, new loops and strategies to discover.