With the rise of global warming, air pollution, overflowing landfills and finite natural resources, it’s more crucial than ever to change the way we design. We must shift from the take-make-waste approach of a linear economy to a circular economy that aims to reduce the use of natural resources, lower manufacturing and distribution energy requirements, and produce products that are reusable and/or recyclable.
As a concerned engineer, I know we cannot continue this wasteful approach of a linear economy. We have an opportunity and perhaps even a responsibility to address these global challenges through the way we design our products. How? Well, we’re problem solvers, aren’t we?
How to get started
The solution starts with us. In part one of this article, I want to discuss how to move from a linear economy to a circular economy through circular design. Circular design is the practice of applying circular economy principles at the design stage that aim to eliminate waste and pollution, regenerate natural systems, and keep products and materials in use as long as possible.
I’ve been working with my colleague Peter Rucinski, an authority on circular economy and plastics design, on evangelizing this new approach to product design. I remember one of my earliest conversations with Peter, a Senior Director at Dassault Systèmes SOLIDWORKS, where we both agreed that the industry cannot continue the wasteful approach of a linear economy. “We have reached the limits of scalability and this model is no longer sustainable,” Peter said.
Linear economy vs. Circular Economy
To start, let’s look more closely at the linear economy and circular economy models to gain a better understanding.
The take-make-waste approach of a linear economy takes natural resources from the planet to make products. Those products are often designed, made, distributed, and thrown away into the solid waste stream with no concern for re-use or recycling.
On the other hand, in a circular economy the primary goals are to eliminate waste from the system, minimize or exclude the use of natural resources, and design and manufacture products that have a longer lifecycle or multi-use lifecycle.
So, for example, when choosing your materials you could use a recycled material, instead of a new natural resource.
Another example would be making a multi-use product where in the first phase of its lifecycle it performs a particular function, then when it can no longer perform its original function, maybe it can be used for another purpose. For example, a single-use food package could become a re-usable storage/microwavable container, or a trash barrel could become a compost bin. When it finally reaches the end of its lifecycle, it could be recycled.
I think you get the idea. But ultimately, we have to change our mindset, which is also an opportunity to really get creative and innovate.
Don’t be a Flat Earth Engineer
Not only are we problem solvers, but we are also innovators who think out of the box. Circular design focuses on designing products, services and systems with the bigger picture in mind— that are long-lasting, useful, innovative and environmentally friendly.
Below are some other things we can consider to meet those goals.
– Considering the needs of the user leads to user-friendly and relevant design solutions. The role of the designer is increasingly important when users are asked to modify behaviors in response to ecological limits.
– Reducing pollutants and carcinogens
Aim for Low-Impact Use:
– Minimize emissions/integrate cleaner or renewable energy sources
– Reduce energy inefficiencies
– Reduce water use inefficiencies
– Reduce material use inefficiencies
– Design for easy repair, cleaning, and enable easy replacement of parts when worn out or obsolete
– Choose better materials that have minimal environmental impact by maximizing potential for reuse and recycling
Circular Design is Catching On
Many industries, such as the plastics industry, are already embracing circular design and the circular economy. Since 2019 it’s been an ongoing topic of discussion at the “K” tradeshow, one the largest plastic events that takes place in Düsseldorf, Germany, bringing in over 200,000 attendees from more than 160 countries. What we’ve seen is a lot of the world’s top plastics material manufacturers exhibit and use the show to promote their sustainability/circular economy goals and initiatives. And for this year’s K show, the circular economy and climate protection are two of the hottest topics.
Covestro is one of the companies in the plastic industries making circular economy a priority. Covestro is a leading supplier of high-tech polymer materials, who partners with Dassault Systèmes by providing sophisticated and high-quality plastics material data used to simulate the injection molding process.
As you can see from the following quote by Covestro’s CEO, they believe that plastics will be critical in meeting the global challenges we all face.
“Given the many global challenges, plastics are vital to create a truly sustainable future and to make the circular economy the new guiding principle,” said Dr. Markus Steilemann, CEO, Covestro.
While today only about 9% of all plastics get recycled, expect that percentage to increase significantly in the near future as the circular economy and climate protection become top-of-mind for the plastics industry.
Why You Should Care
You might ask the question why should I care? For one, you are making better, healthier choices for consumers and the environment. Besides that, there is economic value. “Transitioning to a circular economy has tremendous potential for economic growth, material cost savings, job creation and improved material technology, increased energy efficiency, profit opportunities and achieving climate targets and that’s just the short list,” said Peter.
Accenture Strategy estimates there is a potential to unlock $4.5 trillion GDP growth by the year 2030 through a radical departure from the traditional take, make, waste production and consumption system.
I hope this article has been insightful and serves as a call to action to develop more eco-friendly products. There will come a time when not only will products have to work and look good, but also be sustainable.
Stay tuned for part two on Circular Design and Sustainability as we’ll look at how simulation can be incorporated into circular design and some of our solutions to help our customers meet their circular design and sustainability goals.