What does a "circular" product even mean?

Each year, the US produces an average of 268 million tons of waste, with 140 million tons of that going into landfill. And this problem is not unique to the US. With statistics like this, something needs to change. So, what exactly do we need to change to reduce our waste problem? Legislations and practices are being updated around the world to promote the shift to a more sustainable model of production and consumption: the circular economy. In practice, a circular model involves the sharing, renting, repairing, refurbishing and recycling of existing products and materials, for as long as possible - basically extending the life of our purchases and “closing the loop” by reusing or recycling, instead of sending them to the waste heap. Circularity aims to reduce waste and create further value by improving the lifespan of what we produce.

What Is Circularity In Design?


If we apply circularity to design, we can break it down into the three following principles:

  • Eliminate waste and pollution. By reducing our rate of consumption and refuse through reuse, repair and recycling, we can significantly reduce waste and pollution levels.
  • Circulate products and materials. By designing better quality products, made out of recyclable materials, we can increase their lifespan, design with repair in mind and encourage reuse before eventually being recycled.
  • Regenerate nature. By designing more sustainably, we can help regenerate nature, by reducing toxic waste materials, and ensuring products can degrade naturally, or be recycled safely, without harming the environment.

Circularity in design can therefore be defined as “creation with intention”, and thinking of the future, not just the present! In his 2005 Ted Talk, William McDonough states this plainly: “How can we expect to live in an environmentally friendly world, unless we design our objects with this in mind?”.

Why Is It Important?

We are seeing companies and governments race to intensively extract our finite natural resources, and this is happening all around the world. Our current rate of consumption puts unsustainable pressure on our ecosystems, wildlife and planet while leaving no time for regeneration, and for natural systems to replenish. As production goes up, unavoidably, so do levels of waste. With increased production and waste, comes increased emissions, and the circle continues… If we can, as a society, shift to designing with circularity in mind, there is huge potential to tackle our growing waste problems, change attitudes to single-use products, and help nature truly begin to regenerate.

What Products Can Be Made Circular?


So many different products! When designing with circularity in mind, the main difference in the design process is a sustainable mindset, and planning for reuse or safe disposal. When we go a step further, by starting with recycled or recyclable building blocks, we can ensure our products actually tackle our waste problem and can be disposed of easily and safely without contributing to it.
A great example of this forward-thinking style of design is our award-winning Circular Backpack here at Solgaard - by creating each element of the design from recycled PET - from the lining to the fabric to the labels and more! - we can ensure that no material goes to waste and that the backpack is optimized for simple, mechanical recycling, in facilities near you. This retains the value of the original PET plastic and avoids wastage, all while extending the life of our planet’s other finite resources. By designing with the product’s end-of-life in mind, we can minimize waste, continue to innovate and support the vital initiative that is circular design.
Other examples of circularly designed products might include:

  • Packaging. Our packing waste problem is not a secret, and by designing packaging to break down naturally after use, we can help tackle this. An example of this effort comes from the company Ecovative, which makes fully compostable packaging from mushrooms.
  • Office furniture. Offices around the world are stocked with a majority of plastic office furniture. Company Ahrend specifically designs and produces their office furniture to be easily disassembled, stored and repaired, extending the product’s life as a core design principle, so that every product can have multiple lives. They also offer a furniture-as-a-service (FAAS) where customers can pay a monthly fee to rent, and return when they no longer need it, reducing waste and encouraging reuse.
  • Headphones & more. E-waste is becoming a huge problem, as it is often challenging to dispose of or reuse, with many companies designing for obsolescence.  With that in mind, the company Repeat launched a subscription service for their headphones. The modular design lets 85% of components be reused, uses durable, standardised designs, and recovers, repairs and recycles headphones at the end of their lives. Their design model aims to cut down on the millions of tons of electronic waste that arrives in landfill every year.

The Future Of Circularity In Design


With all of this in mind, advantages of circularity in design are clear. At its core, a circular economy means that products no longer have the usual life cycle of beginning, middle and end - meaning that waste is reduced and that they will continue to bring value again and again.
We are seeing the shift to this design style, as more consumers are conscious of the effects of their purchases. With more consciously designed products available, such as those here at Solgaard, it is getting easier to make the more sustainable, or ‘circular’ choice! We can all play a part by sourcing durable, good-quality items from companies that care for our planet, instead of cheap single-use items that break, tear, or get tossed into the trash after a few uses. As we, the consumers, begin to seek circular design and sustainability in our products, more businesses and governments will move to meet this demand. Imagine what would happen if everything was designed with the future in mind?
Written by Cicely Sinclair

  1. https://www.dumpsters.com/blog/us-trash-production
  2. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/economy/20151201STO05603/circular-economy-definition-importance-and-benefits
  3. https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/design-and-the-circular-economy-deep-dive
  4. https://www.tudelft.nl/io/over-io/afdelingen/sustainable-design-engineering/section-design-for-sustainability/circular-product-design
  5. https://www.textilejourney.com/post/on-the-road-to-circularity-5-steps-every-company-should-take