Designing for More Circular Systems

Outside the context of environmental concepts or business lingo, the word “sustainable” can be defined as able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed at a certain rate or level. In the context of the world we live in, today’s largely linear systems of consumption and production are far from it. Continuing to strain on its finite resources, dwindling landfill space and ever-changing climate, the take-make-dispose way of designing without end-of-life solutions are now coming to the forefront as a global issue. Companies and major brands are in a position to compel change toward more regenerative, restorative business ecosystems.

Circular design principles support a vision for a more sustainable future. In a circular product economy, products and their packaging, even the “waste,” are valued for their component material parts as potentially useful inputs into the resource system. For businesses, strategizing around supply chain security and investing in renewable resources can drive innovations that differentiate themselves from competitors and prepare them for resilience in a changing sustainability landscape.

But acknowledging the significant challenges designers and manufacturers face in working circular design concepts into company processes is one place to start. Consumer brands stand to gain competitiveness and influence in the marketplace by embracing sustainability and CSR initiatives, but integrating more circular processes requires sweeping infrastructure changes that many businesses may have difficulty implementing and sustaining.

Striving to mitigate costs and reduce uncertainty, businesses are constantly presented with prohibitive obstacles that, like most institutional challenges, boil down to a matter of economics. Companies and manufacturers are concerned about their bottom line and may see little economic incentive to reallocate resources necessary to work circularity into company processes.

For example, an airline, as much a brand as a consumer product company, offers a range of services to consumers besides transportation, hospitality being one of them. There is a lot of material associated with these services. Today, most airlines will simply throw any ‘waste’ items in the trash, rather than recycling, because the cost to train the flight attendants to deal with the logistics, then to actually process it, is not enough to make it all make economic sense. It just costs too much in the current recycling infrastructure.

The lack of economic incentive to work more circular systems into brand processes is compounded by the advent of complex materials and difficult-to-recycle items. Multi-compositional and/or comprised of plastic for which there is no market, CPG companies inadvertently produce materials that end up in landfills to address consumer demand and reduce production and transportation costs. The gap in these practices lies in their support of a disposable culture in which consumption trumps creating things of value that are made to last, which would cut down on materials used and eventually wasted.

Here, it is important to remember that waste is a relatively modern idea that came about when it became more economically viable to produce new materials than to reuse, recycle or repurpose existing ones, and to burn and bury the rest. It is also important to remember that up until the 1940s, things were actually quite circular. Consumables were delivered in reusable containers, goods were purchased in small markets or grown locally, and the value of goods encouraged repair and reuse. Tweaking existing business models to accommodate more circular design principles can take a lead from the past by using highly recyclable or durable materials, and viewing items are more valuable.

The thing is, while recycling is one aspect of the circular economy that provides a solution for both the world’s waste problem and the increasing strain on the earth’s finite resources, it is only a reaction to the systemic issue that is present: the culture of overconsumption and perception of resource disposability. Scaling up on the sustainable, circular systems already in place requires more creative organizational and technological innovations to reverse the cycle of linear sourcing and disposal processes.

Earlier this year, my company TerraCycle announced our partnership with consumer product giant Procter & Gamble and SUEZ in Europe to put out the world’s first fully recyclable shampoo bottle made with recycled beach plastic. So far the world’s largest production run of recyclable shampoo bottles (150,000, to be exact) made with beach plastic, the pilot is for the world’s #1 shampoo brand, Head & Shoulders. SUEZ, the largest waste management company in Europe, and my company TerraCycle, are tasked with sourcing and processing the post-consumer recycled beach plastics.

By using a material like beach plastic that is very difficult to work with, thus considerably less valuable than generic recycled materials, P&G creates a market for it. Creating new sourcing infrastructures and investing in the circular activity of collecting, processing and successfully integrating an unconventional material into its product packaging closes a material loop in an unexpected place.

There are endless opportunities to create circular systems where they currently do not exist, or strengthen them where the groundwork has been laid. New revenue streams and production arms generated by the construction of new systems and procedures have long and short-term ROI potential in both the top-line and the development of circular competencies that rivals will eventually be hard-pressed to match.

I will be speaking on Learning from Young Leaders and Nurturing the Next Generation of Purposeful Leadership and Circularity as the Leading Design Principle of Our Time at SB’17 Detroit on May 23, 2017. Join me and connect with 2,000+ brand and sustainability leaders in Detroit for a collective conversation about how brands can position themselves for success against the backdrop of changing societal needs!

Tom Szaky
April 27, 2017

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