The world is facing a rapid depletion of resources.

According to the UN World Population Prospects report, by 2030, the global population will reach nine billion with three billion middle-class consumers. Moreover, pollution is increasing at an unprecedented speed, and we have no clear plans for how to deal with the by-products from manufacturing industries.

To say that we have to change the current “take-make-dispose” approach to consumptions is an understatement. We need a massive plan for radical transformation.

The global economy will benefit from the creation of an infrastructure that designs products from idea to implementation with the principles of the circular economy in mind: taking waste and pollution out of the equation,  creating products from renewable resources, reusing and re-purposing products and materials. (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

The concept of “circular economy” grew up from the idea that manpower can be substituted by energy. It was first described in a written report by Geneviève Reday-Mulvey and Walter R. Stahel, for the European Commission. The concept was developed as a reaction to the unstable socio-economic climate of the ‘70s when unemployment and energy prices were on the rise. (Stahel, 2016– Nature)

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From linear to a circular economy

For a long time, our economy has been “linear.” We create products from raw materials, use them and then we discarded them. The shift to a circular model involves a drastic change in the way we understand consumption. The rules of the Circular economy are: building from sustainable, regenerable raw materials, and re-purposing used objects and by-products.

The founders, adepts, and contributors to the circular economy invest in the development of innovation hubs, foundations, training, workshops, and educational programs to encourage entrepreneurs to come up with innovative ways to consolidate the circular economy. Its potential for transformation, innovation, job creation, and economic opportunities is estimated at around 3 billion dollars (World Economic Forum 2018).

Rethink the business model

In a linear model, a company sells a product, the client uses it and then disposes of it. In a circular model, companies focus on bringing as many products as possible back into the production phase. This marks the shift from a “make-use-dispose” to a “make-use-return” mentality.

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In the “Light as a service” business model, there is no need for upfront investment; clients save from day one. The contract includes maintenance and logistics support. It all starts with smart circular design. The modular luminary design makes it easy to change components and install upgrades like data enabled lighting. Thanks to reverse logistics, used products are not disposed but repaired or returned to the manufacturer. All parts will go back in the production cycle.

Philips sold lighting as a service to Schiphol, one of the most sustainable airports in the world, continually looking to adopt the latest developments in sustainability. The decision turned out to be more profitable and sustainable than if they bought and used the actual products. As a result, Schiphol’s bills dropped by 50 %, product life increased by 75%, and Philips established a long-term relationship with Schiphol.

A circular economy uses resources more efficiently, by creating rather than wasting, using, rather than owning, reusing rather than disposing.

Design for the future

Designers should make sure that, e.g., the configuration of parts allows for easy re-assembly, that materials are recyclable or biodegradable.  The solution is to create systems that enable customers to re-use and regenerate the resources. Adjusting and repairing disparate parts leads to fragmentation and creates silos. (World Economic Forum: 2018).

Businesses use recycling to deal with waste and unwanted products. This solution should be their last resort. By employing this strategy, companies do nothing else than trying to find a temporary solution to a complex problem that can irreversibly impact the world.

The solution is not recycling, or better said, not only recycling. We have to distance ourselves from the “make-use-dispose” mentality and as consumers to demand products created with a new set of values in mind. These values are resistance, resilience, and continuity.

I will end this article with a quote from William McDonough: “[The Circular Economy] is the largest opportunity ever seen by our species, and the leaders will understand that by design we can create perpetual assets and optimize them to create businesses that thrive and are enjoyed by people everywhere, all the time. Why would we want to miss this?”