What does 'circular design' actually mean?

Unpacking the meaning of circular design, and exploring what every business can do to adopt a more circular business model.

For thousands of years many civilisations saw the Earth as an infinite pool of resources to fuel our continual growth and development. And whilst in the 1800’s intellectual thought began to question the impact this was having, and in the 1960’s Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought it into the public conscious, it was only as recently as 2002 that we saw the first published doctrine on how we can learn to live in harmony with nature.


Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things was the seminal work of architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, a blueprint for all aspects of society on how to convert to a more circular economy, a way of living that still thrives, yet doesn’t cause lasting environmental damage. The central principle of this blueprint is the way things are designed.


In a 2005 Ted Talk, William McDonough says “Design is the first signal of human intentions, but what are our intentions? ...What is the first question for designers?” In essence, what this means is that the way we design anything is a reflection of our vision for the world. How can we expect to live in an environmentally friendly or “circular” world, unless we specifically design buildings, objects or systems with this in mind?

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Designing for circularity 

Circular design is all about the materials used, whatever we are talking about. 80-90% of a product’s environmental impacts are determined at the design and raw material/component production phase. In a linear model, the product is made from raw materials, the product is used, and then once it has served its purpose, the used materials are deemed waste, and are either incinerated or put in landfill - both of which are detrimental to the environment.


In a circular model, once a product has reached the end of its lifecycle, the materials are reclaimed and reused, forming an infinite loop and never reaching landfill. The products are ideally made of recycled materials, processed using renewable energy, and packaged in recycled materials. The product and the company making the product also have no side effects on the users and their local environment – so no harmful chemicals in the products are released during use as by-products from manufacturing or the supply chain. Because of the different functional needs and expectations of objects, there is no one definitive answer for something to be circular. Instead, a combination of concepts and principles is required to provide a toolkit of possibilities for every product to be able to last as long as possible, and the ability for it to be broken down and either reused again in new products or components and materials being recycled for new purposes.


Read - Using recycled materials - why bother?


Flokk’s approach to circular design 

In the 1990s, Flokk did just that – developing a range of development principles to enable circular design. Named 5-III (five three), it features five circular design principles to take care of three focus areas – climate, resources and health.


The five circular design principles are:


Low weight:  

By making a product through weight optimization and smart dimensioning of parts, you are using fewer resources. This reduces the strain on the environment, especially when production is in the thousands of units. Lightweight also means lower transportation costs, both financially and environmentally. Low weight also has a health aspect, in the sense that products are handled and carried by people during a long lifetime. 


Fewer components:  

The best solutions are often the simplest. By making a functional object with as few components as possible, you decrease the amount of tooling required, potentially lower the variety of resources needed, and decrease the amount of time needed to manufacture and assemble objects. This will help to keep weight low as well, but also reduce the number of materials needed to create tools, and energy expended during manufacture and assembly.


Right choice of materials:  

Choosing the right materials is a decisive circular design principle. Using recycled materials such as post-consumer plastics and aluminium is truly circular. Not only will it help to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, recycled materials also have a much lower carbon footprint than virgin raw materials due to less energy consumption during processing. Steering clear of harmful substances and toxic materials such as chromium and looking toward renewable materials are also key considerations.


Long lifespan:  

Creating high-quality objects that are designed for long life can significantly reduce the use of resources, not only in materials but also in energy expended to replace the objects. A true circular product is designed to allow easy replacement of wearing parts, with spare parts available at low cost.


Designed for disassembly:  

Once an object is at the end of life, designing for easy disassembly is crucial to enable deconstruction, sorting of base materials, and processing for recycling. If components are inseparably fused together (either by glues or non-accessible screws/fittings) then it can be very hard to separate and sort, and more likely to end up in landfill. 

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A circular future

“The EU needs to accelerate the transition towards a regenerative growth model that gives back to the planet more than it takes, advance towards keeping its resource consumption within planetary boundaries and therefore strive to reduce its consumption footprint and double its circular material use rate in the coming decade. For business, working together on creating the framework for sustainable products will provide new opportunities in the EU and beyond.” – EU Circular Economy Action Plan


Circular design principles will become crucial if we are to continue to maintain the level of commodities our species has grown accustomed to. In fact, Circular Design is a central feature of the EU European Green Deal, signed in 2020, which targets carbon neutrality for the whole of the EU by 2050, and the halt to the loss of biodiversity. Circular design will fast become a central feature of how every business will need to design – whether its objects, buildings, systems, or even ideas. 


Find out more - a complete guide to making sustainable choices

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