From reuse to a circular economy

What once started out as the reuse of second-hand items, has morphed into the sustainable design of products that remain in the economic system for as long as possible. A brief history of the circular economy.    

Circularity, the development of a closed-loop supply chain, has been a hot topic among designers for decades.

In 1972 the book Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek is published. Papanek then goes on to become the father of sustainable design. He links design and product development to social sustainability. Products must be useful for people living in poverty in Africa.

 Following on from this idea, in 1990 the term EcoDesign (designing for the planet) is coined. There are problems with acidification, the ozone layer and climate change. How can you reduce the negative impact of products on the environment? The planet is at the heart of this concept.

In 2002 the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough is published. They believe that EcoDesign only focuses on improving products, but when is a product actually good enough? Their motto is: waste = food.
Cradle to cradle principles:

  1. You must be able to compost or recycle everything you design
  2. Use renewable energy
  3. Respect diversity: take into account differences and local conditions

Cradle to cradle focuses primarily on recycling: taking products apart to reuse materials.

Following on from this line of thought, the term ‘circular economy’ appears in the same year, and more attention turns to business models. Products and materials must be able to circulate within biological and technical loops. For example:

  • Reuse = reusing the product or item without doing much to it. Examples: second-hand clothing, LPs.
  • Repair = product repaired by the consumer or a technician.
  • Refurbishment = not repairing but rather refurbishing the product by testing parts and possibly replacing them. Examples: replacing scratched screens on second-hand iPhones and selling them online (e.g. Leapp, anagram of Apple)
  • Remanufacturing = recovering and processing large, complex products so they are as good as new. Examples: copiers, tractor engines, medical equipment such as MRI scanners.

In 2006 attention shifts to people-oriented sustainable design. Behaviour determines sustainability, especially of products that use electricity and water. Examples: water-saving shower heads, big and small flushes on toilets.

Trend: consumers do not buy products but take out subscriptions to use them. Examples: pay per wash, Swapfiets. 

This article was written in collaboration with Professor Conny Bakker. She was appointed professor of Methodology for Sustainability and Circular Economy at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at the end of December.