The 20th Century has been the century of plastics. Developments in petroleum extraction, engineering, and material sciences have resulted in increased efficiency in the energy extracted from hydrocarbons, as well a host of highly customized and economical materials that have become a staple of every aspect of life – from cheap disposable products (e.g. shopping bags) to the medical and aerospace industries.
While plastics are relatively inexpensive to produce (with most being a byproduct of the fossil-fuel industry), are easy (inexpensive) to give shape, and can be designed with physical characteristics addressing a vast array of applications, their recklessly widespread utilization in almost all aspects of society and their resilience to the Earth’s natural cycles have created a massive problem with the end of life stages of plastic products – especially in products meant for short and medium-term use.
The Biodesign project is concerned with raising awareness on, and promoting the use of, low impact and biological-biodegradable materials in design where possible. It is built upon the concept of the circular economy, and, in particular, Dr. Ana Mestre’s Circular Product Design: A Multiple Loops Life Cycle Design Approach (Mestre & Cooper, 2017) developed at Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK.
THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
The circular economy concept brings together the work of past academics and thinkers, tracing its roots to authors like Boulding (1966), Stahel and Reday-Mulvey (1981), Frosch and Gallopoulos (1989), Manzini, Vezzoli, and Clark (2001), and McDonough and Braungardt (2001), all of whom argue for the an intentionally designed approach to production and economics (considering the impacts of products and services from resource extraction to end-of-life disposal), transitioning from a linear make-use-dispose economy into an integrated system, where the outputs of one process serve as inputs for another.
The circular economy’s premise is to think about sustainability issues in terms of an economic system, rather than individual products, technologies, companies, and industries. This new system integrates the use of renewable energy technologies (from resource extraction to logistics, to production), pushing for the utilization of low-impact renewable materials and good design, in order to make products that last longer (through modularity, repairability, and user serviceability), while minimizing waste at the end of products’ life cycles (through reusability, reclamation of materials, and biodegradability).
Essentially, the circular economy approaches artifacts/products through the functions that they accomplish, rather than their physical beings. That is, a consumer needs the functionality offered by a product (say, the washing of clothing) rather than the product itself (i.e. washing machine). This promotes the idea of a leasing-type of product acquisition in order to fulfill functions/needs, where the company maintains ownership of the product, and responsibility for its maintenance (and end-of-life), rather than selling the product and passing on associated responsibilities to the end consumer.
In terms of materials use, the circular economy – in line with McDonough and Braungadt’s Cradle to Cradle concept – considers the utilization of two classifications: technical materials that can be recycled and reused; and, biological materials that can safely return to the biosphere as nutrients and feedstock for other processes. In such a system, the design of products requires ‘design for disassembly’ as a standard paradigm – the design of products in such a way, so as to make it possible to easily disassemble its various components (especially those that are of different materials), that they can be easily recycled individually. This, in turn, would require the minimization of the use of non water-soluble chemical bonding agents (adhesives). Similar to Cradle to Cradle, toxic chemicals and materials should be avoided.
In addition to the focus on the design of products and services to utilize renewable energy, low impact materials, and product life extension, the circular economy also requires a strong network for the recollection and reclamation of the materials circulation within it. Such a system would need to be far more developed than our contemporary recycling regime – and, in an ownership context- with a large portion of the responsibility carried by the end consumer: e.g. to prefer product life extension possibilities (maintenance of function) over new products (through repair, refurbishment, upgrading), and to choose the correct methods of ‘discarding’ a product (or rather, depositing the product for materials recovery/recycling/refurbishment) at the end of the consumer interaction phase of its life cycle.
Furthermore, the circular economy calls for maximizing the efficiency of consumption by promoting shared ownership where possible. Recent years have seen such concepts rise, as information-technology systems reached the necessary maturity for their implementation through the spread of the Internet, and the widespread use of smart phones (e.g. car pooling). On the other hand, entrepreneurial models in recent years, built around software enabling shared use have begun to crop up a (e.g. Uber, Car Pool, Tool Share); however, the overall problems have not been solved, as many examples were unsuccessful, while the successful examples became corporatized and brought into being the caveats that come with a for-profit corporation (e.g. in the case of Uber, promoting unfair competition with local taxi businesses, low quality control and harassment of customers and drivers, as well as drivers earning very little).
Recently, criticisms of the circular economy have also come to light, as a real circular economy in accordance with the claims made by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – totally eliminating waste and establishing an integrated closed-loop, indefinitely sustainable system violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy – though the Earth is not a completely closed system, receiving energy from the sun, material degradation and eventual scarcity are inevitable). While the initial ‘hype’ around the concept has faded, it nonetheless has managed to impact both industry (e.g. used clothing recycling schemes, Philips’ circular economy initiatives in the medical hardware and lighting sectors), as well as politics (the EU Commission Circular Economy Action Plan), and ultimately the circular economy’s vision and argument for the intelligent design of the economy and related systems stands, and the ever apparent effects of anthropogenic climate change merit its consideration in our production and consumption paradigms as a global society.
CIRCULAR PRODUCT DESIGN: A MULTIPLE LOOPS LIFE CYCLE DESIGN APPROACH
Circular product design has been proposed in the academia as a tool to fill in the gap between policy and the circular economy, in order to better equip designers and prospective designers to meet the challenges regarding product design within the transition to a circular economy.
To this end, the Circular Product Design: A Multiple Loops Life Cycle Design Approach (Mestre and Cooper, 2017) was developed (referred to as CPD henceforth), inspired by the life cycle design strategy (LiDS) wheel (Brezet and Hemel, 1997), as well as the technical and biological nutrients of Cradle to Cradle (McDonough and Braungardt, 2001) and the circular economy (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013).
The LiDS wheel is a web diagram that represents the quantitative or qualitative sustainability metrics of a product throughout its life cycle via its eight axes:
I) Materials extraction: This is the very first stage in production, and, from the perspective of design for sustainability, involves the selection of low-impact materials. Low impact generally refers to the extraction methods used (e.g. the use of mercury – a toxic heavy metal that accumulates in the environment – to separate gold from silt presents a very high impact on the environment), but may also refer to social implication (e.g. child labor and slavery in African cobalt mines).
II) Processing: This concerns the processing of the selected materials into usable forms, as well as the amount of material to be used in the manufacturing phase. Utilizing clean energy and non-toxic processes, and decreasing the material input, as well as decreasing the waste stream are principal factors to consider at this stage.
III) Manufacturing: Manufacturing refers to the processes that involve the product’s rendering/assembly. The primary concern here, similar to the above element, is the energy consumed and the toxins released into the environment (e.g. through adhesives).
IV) Transportation: This is the logistics framework behind the distribution of the materials and the product, and involves the utilization of clean energy, as well as possible reduction in volume of mass.
V) Use: This element concerns the reduction of a product’s impact during use. Is it toxic? If it utilizes electricity, how efficient is it?
VI) Product life extension: This factor involves options of optimizing the product’s usable life time. Can it be easily repaired? Can it be upgraded and refurbished to maintain its function? How long will it take to become obsolete?
VII) End-of-life disposal: One of the most important, and often overlooked aspects of a product is the optimization of its end-of-life system: what happens at the end of its life? Can it be recycled? Is it biodegradable (and if so, how long does it take)? If it consists of multiple materials, can it be easily dismantled to facilitate recycling? Today, most of our waste ends up in landfills, and is often incinerated – generating energy, but also releasing toxins and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
VIII) New concept development: The eighth element involves reflecting on the lessons learned from the previous processes, and deciding on how to tackle the desired function of the product in novel and more optimized and efficient ways.
CPD builds upon the above-mentioned tool and concepts by presenting complementary strategies for the consideration of the designer (and other product life cycle decision makers). It comprises two main loops – technological and bio.
‘Technological loops’ approaches the subject matter from the perspective of the circulation of materials, proposing strategies to slow material loops (i.e. delaying the end-of-life of products), and closing the material loops (i.e. minimizing the impact of product end-of-life by reclaiming as much of the useful material as possible, and utilizing it in other products).
‘Bio-loops’ comprises ‘bio-inspired’ and ‘bio-based’ loops – the former based on drawing inspiration from natural systems (e.g. biomimicry and bionics, and industrial symbiosis), and the latter on exploring biological materials as alternatives to conventional ones (e.g. bioplastics, vegetable leathers, and natural fibers).
While biological cycles seem to be an easy answer to the problem of environmental sustainability, it is important to consider the following:
-Bio materials that fulfill the roles of synthetic materials are rare, and the field is still underdeveloped.
-The production of bio materials requires a balance of energy, nutrients, and space; therefore, the mass industrialization of the production of bio-materials has the potential to upset or deplete ecosystems (similar to the agricultural industry eating away at forests) (Mestre and Cooper, 2017).
-The biodegradability of bio-materials requires certain conditions to be met. For example, the widely touted as biodegradable PLA is a bio-plastic derived from plants, but requires facilities to compost it. Even food-grade materials, if land-filled en masse, can be cut-off from oxygen, thereby leading to anaerobic digestion and the production of large quantities of methane – a greenhouse gas several magnitudes more potent than CO2 (Mestre and Cooper, 2017).
These factors necessitate the simultaneous consideration of technical cycles and biological cycles (Mestre and Cooper, 2017).
The cases presented above are examples where one of the strategies presented in CPD are predominant. Please note, however, that as these products were not designed specifically in the context of CPD, they are far from perfect.
REFERENCES & READING MATERAL
Boulding, K.E., 1966. The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth. Baltimore, MD: Resources for the Future/John Hopkins University Press.
Brezet, H. and Hemel, C. 1997. Ecodesign: A promising approach to sustainable production and consumption. United Nations Environment Programme, Paris.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016. Circular Economy [online]. Available at [http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org] Accessed 20 August 2016.
Frosch, R.A., and Gallopoulos, N.E. 1989. Strategies for Manufacturing Waste from one industrial process can serve as the raw materials for another, thereby reducing the impact of industry on the environment. Scientific American, Vol. 261, No. 3, pp. 144-152.
Manzini, E., Vezzoli, C., and Clark, G., 2001. Product-service systems: using an existing concept as a new approach to sustainability. Journal of Design Research, vol. 1, no. 2, pp..
Mestre, A. and Cooper, T., 2017. Circular Product Design. A Multiple Loops Life Cycle Approach for the Circular Economy. The Design Journal. 20:sup 1, S1620-S1635.
Stahel, W.R. and Reday-Mulvey, G. 1981. Jobs for Tomorrow, the potential for substituting manpower for energy. New York: Vantage Press.