Since the Industrial Revolution, our economy has been predicated on a linear model: taking resources from the Earth, manufacturing them into products, and disposing of them. As global population figures soar, and by extension resource demand and waste production, this system is approaching its limits. Across the globe the impacts are already being felt. As engineers, we have an opportunity to address this crisis by rethinking the traditional linear design approach, writes Mary Cronin.

Watershed moment

The circular economy presents a radical alternative to the conventional linear model, and as a concept it is rapidly gaining traction. Under this approach, growth is decoupled from resource availability, through building in the ability to remanufacture or reuse products from the outset and designing the associated business models to do so.

The circular economy is based on the principle of maintaining the value of products, materials and resources for as long as possible. This way of thinking is increasingly being applied to product and system design across sectors and industries globally.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has projected that the benefits of transitioning to a circular economy include a 48% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, $700 million in annual material cost savings in the fast-moving consumer goods economy, a $550 billion reduction in healthcare costs associated with the food sector, and a €3,000 increase in disposable income per annum for EU households.

It is no wonder, therefore, that policy makers are integrating circular economy objectives into policy, and global brands are making this a core part of their business; Nike and Apple have plans to source 100% of their product-related materials from recycled goods, while Ikea is aiming to become a fully circular business by 2030. IBM, Phillips, Renault are Siemens are just some of the other global businesses setting bold targets in this area.

So what do we need to understand about the circular economy to ensure we are not left behind?

The principles of circular design

Circular design is underpinned by three core principles:

  1. Design out waste and pollution

By changing our mindset to view waste as a design flaw and harnessing new materials and technologies, we can ensure that waste and pollution are not created in the first place. An example of the application of this principle is Ecovative’s development of a fully compostable alternative to standard synthetic packaging, made from agricultural feedstock.

  1. Keep products and materials in use

This principle challenges us to design products and components that can be reused, repaired and remanufactured. And for those products that cannot last forever, to find ways to get the materials back so they do not end up in landfill. An example of the application of this principle is clothing company Hiut Demin’s policy of offering free repairs for life.

  1. Regenerating natural systems

This principle challenges us to not only protect, but actively improve the environment. By returning valuable nutrients to the soil and other ecosystems, we can enhance our natural resources.

An example of the application of this principle is wastewater company Ostara’s recovery of phosphorus and other nutrients that cannot be synthesised from industrial and municipal wastewater streams, and subsequent sale of the product to growers and farmers as a pure and effective fertiliser.

These universal principles can be applied across industries and geographies. At UpThink we work with Irish businesses to understand how these principles can be integrated within the context of our clients’ particular products, manufacturing processes, supply chains and operating models.

In some cases, this involves a complete change of business process; this is not a minor undertaking, however the benefits and opportunities of an early transition to circularity justify the upfront investment.

The policy incentive

While the idea of a circular economy has been around since the 1970s, the concept did not receive widespread attention until recent years. Despite growing interest, the world’s aggregate production line is currently only 9% circular.

Businesses with linear systems still thrive due to the low cost of raw materials created by competition and limited mandatory regulation and legal penalties to account for the long-term environmental cost.

To address this, the EU is planning legislative changes to support the move to circular and regenerative models. In 2015 the European Commission published its first Circular Economy Action Plan. This plan is one of the main building blocks of the European Green Deal.

In Ireland, the Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy is our new roadmap for waste planning and management. To support the policy, regulation is already being used (Circular Economy Legislative Package), or in the pipeline (Single Use Plastics Directive).

In April of this year, the government published a draft national strategy on how Ireland can transition to a circular economy, as part of their commitments under the Waste Action Plan. A public consultation process is now open for this document and businesses, communities and citizens are invited to contribute their views. 

These policy changes will have a substantial impact on Irish businesses. Those who deliberately integrate circular design principles into their core business model early, as opposed to reacting to each new piece of legislation, will be at a competitive advantage.

Spotlight on construction

As one of the world’s largest consumers of energy and raw materials, the construction industry has the capacity to radically benefit from the transition to a circular economy.

In the EU, construction is responsible for about 40% of CO2 emissions and nearly a third of all waste. This waste includes glass, wood, and metals – materials which though a circular economy lens are considered a valuable resource.

Given the industry’s scale, shifting from a linear to a circular economy presents huge scope for ecological improvements and also economic benefits.

Research published by Roland Berger Consulting indicates that new circular business models in construction will account for a global market of more than €600 billion by 2025, with Europe playing a key role. 

Innovative opportunities, emerging business models and new revenue streams are arising in the construction industry from recovering materials and then recycling or reusing them.

More significantly, forthcoming policy and regulations are now introducing this as a mandate for governments and firms alike. The EU waste legislation aims to shift the management of waste streams from prevention to reuse, recycle or recover.

The EU Circular Economy Package includes raw material conservation, reductions in CO2 and creating durable products. The EU has highlighted the importance of construction and demolition (C&D) waste as one of the five priority areas which the circular economy package is tackling.

A recent article for Irish Building Magazine explored how these policy changes will impact the Irish market and highlighted the urgent need for a transition to a more circular approach in the sector.

In his article ‘Circular Economy Adding Value to Construction’ PJ Rudden, former president of Engineers Ireland, presented the clear historic correlation between construction and C&D waste tonnage, and forecast that C&D tonnage is likely to return to double digits as Ireland’s construction industry ramps up to deliver the planned infrastructure ambition outlined in Project Ireland 2040.

Rudden emphases that “there will be insufficient infrastructure to cater for the resultant waste, all of which is recyclable. The logical conclusion that we can draw from this scenario is that the full development of the circular economy model will be an urgent requirement.”

Spotlight on packaging industry

Another high priority area for the European circular economy plan, the packaging industry has enormous potential for circularity. In 2017, packaging waste in Europe reached a record 173kg per inhabitant, the highest level ever. One of the key actions detailed in the circular economy action plan is ‘driving design for reuse and recyclability of packaging’.

This represents opportunities for firms which create alternate packaging methods with an emphasis on reuse of resources from the start of the design phase.

Modularity, or designing products to be easily broken down into their component parts for reuse, is an extremely effective way of designing packaging for circularity.

The dialogue around renewable materials in a circular economy has focused on biodegradability. In reality, renewable materials play a key role in reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling streams, particularly in the packaging industry.

Opportunities for water

A warming planet coupled with increasing global populations threatens to place a large strain on demand for fresh water. According to the UN World Water Development Report 2019, by 2050 water use is expected to increase by 20-30% of current usage levels.

Water is the source of all life on the planet, acts as a service, performs as a source of energy and as a carrier. The Ellen MacArthur foundation outlines the opportunity for a circular approach to water through the use of five measures: Avoid Use, Reduce Use, Reuse, Recycle and Replenish. An example of an opportunity for circularity in water management is in wastewater treatment.

Orange County in California, has several innovative water reuse projects. The Groundwater Replenishment System is the world’s largest system for indirect potable reuse.

It takes highly treated wastewater that would normally be sent into the Pacific Ocean and purifies it. Additionally, the Ejby Mølle plant in Denmark turns wastewater into energy.

Renewable energy is produced by turning sludge into biogas which is then transformed into heat and electricity. This is just one insight into the vast scope for circularity in water management.

Circular design

Embracing a more circular economy presents vast opportunity for new and existing businesses, and society as a whole. As engineers, we can be active contributors to this change and where possible ensure that circularity is being considered from the very conception of a design idea. When you are creating products, systems and solutions are you considering circular design?

At UpThink we consider the various pathways to the circular economy as depicted on the following image (Figure 1).

Figure 1

If you would like to learn more about the opportunities and challenges of the transition to circularity, UpThink Innovation Agency is delivering a workshop ‘Pathways to the Circular Economy – Designing for Circularity’, exploring the circularity and circular design on June 10, 2021. Register here.

Author: Mary Cronin is Founder of UpThink, an Innovation Agency who help organisations accelerate ideas, unlock opportunities and create circular growth leading to a low carbon future. She brings 25 years' experience as a chartered engineer, circular innovation catalyst and technologist. 

Cronin has a track record of creating innovation systems, coupled with a deep understanding of business ecosystems and developing the transition to a low-carbon future.