The circular economy is not (only) about recycling
The transition to a circular economy is about reducing, simplifying, re-using, repairing, and recycling (when needed). Recycling takes energy, reducing and re-using do not.
As we work to minimize waste and reduce our carbon footprint, it's important to remember that the focus shouldn't just be on carbon alone. We need to do a full life cycle assessment, considering the operational and embodied impact of the goods we produce and consume.
Just because something seems sustainable, does not actually mean that it is. Our intuition may be wrong, so we must be vigilant in our assessment of sustainability and be willing to challenge our assumptions and beliefs.
What’s the best, more sustainable material to build a bench on a high street, wood 🪵 or concrete 🧱?
Our intuition is that wood would be more sustainable. In practice, however, wood can deteriorate much faster than concrete, especially if pedestrians, skaters and other city-dwellers do not use the piece of urban furniture as intended. Using wood to build a bench sounds good, but in reality, is it better to have a concrete bench that will last 10 years with little to no repair needed, or better to cut a tree every month to repair the wooden bench? Evaluating lifecycles of goods in a specific context is key. Carbon assessment is indicative, but not a particularly accurate measurement of sustainability.
Design plays a crucial role in the transition to a circular economy. Simple designs tend to be easier to recycle, reuse, and repair ("simple is beautiful"). By reducing our reliance on plastics & hard-to-recycle materials, and standardizing our designs to be modular, we can create goods that are truly circular, minimizing or eliminating waste in the system ♻️.
Trust and perception are also crucial aspects of a circular economy. While second-hand shopping becomes more and more widely accepted, not all items are equal on the second hand market. Buying a second hand car or a second hand jacket is quite common (it is easy to check and try the latter for instance), but buying second hand mattresses or helmets is another story. Moving mattresses around is not easy, and not everyone may be comfortable sleeping in a used one. Likewise, old helmets, or helmets having absorbed impact from a crash, may not be as effective as new ones, making these less prone to reselling on second hand marketplaces.
We need to think differently and creatively to create a truly circular economy for a sustainable future.
Designers and creatives have a key role to play in this transition 🧑🎨.