Creating Circular Products & Circularity Critiques

Nov 3, 2021 1:10:15 PM

Supply Chain, Product Design, Chemical Data, Sustainability, Circularity

Like most things in life, learning about a new concept can be challenging, but doable. Taking that new knowledge and putting it into practice is where the real work and difficulty begins. Circularity is compelling specifically because as a design ideal it is so concise and clear. Unfortunately in practice the concept is not black and white and does not yet exist in a perfected state.  That doesn't mean circularity as a design ideal isn't useful or that partial attempts aren't stepping stones to a truly circular economy. In this circularity series so far, we’ve covered:

  1. The definition of circularity in detail and its goals relative to current efforts 
  2. Material transparency as an essential component of circularity 
  3. The role of supplier data disclosure and Extended Material Responsibility 

To continue this conversation we will be reviewing some strategies companies can adopt to create circular products, as well as some critiques of the circular economy model and what they mean for global circularity efforts. 

 

Making Circularity a Reality

As mentioned, in past weeks we have discussed material transparency, supply chain data collection, and the concept of Extended Material Responsibility. These are all key components of establishing a circular product and supply chain. You might be wondering… what next? Or what else? Here we hope to answer those questions. 

Circularity performance frameworks have been documented by work like Saidani et al. which gives us great insight into hybrid top-down and bottom-up strategies to assess circularity. The key takeaway they provide is to start early. With circularity being relatively new, there is not yet a perfect formula for its execution. At the stage of product usage or end of life, it is near impossible to implement or improve on a product’s circularity. Instead, Saidani et al. suggest that circularity efforts begin in the early phases of product development or re-design to ensure the most effective circular strategies. They propose measurement that might be more appropriately call "circularity readiness" that can fit better in product design timelines.  With that in mind, there are several strategies to consider in the early stages of design:

1. Avoid monstrous hybrids -- engineer for deconstruction

Key to circularity is the ability to (1) maintain and/or repair, (2) reuse and redistribute, (3) refurbish and remanufacture, and (4) recycle, in order of desirability. For each of these tactics, being able to separate a product into parts and components is a necessity. This is even more important for complex products that have been traditionally difficult to recycle in any way. This means avoiding permanent structures and the inability to separate components. Composite materials and materials that are a combination of natural substances, synthetic substances, and other additives increase product complexity and can make any form of repurposing or recycling impossible or very energy-intensive. Designing a product to be taken apart and reincorporated into the supply chain is something that should be considered from the beginning stages of product development. 

2. Pay more now for circularity, the market will follow

A byproduct of circularity being a relatively new approach is the “early-adopter tax”. As discussed in the previous installments of this series, more often than not, manufacturers do not know the entire composition of their product due to data secrecy. Due to long-established supply chain relationships, it can sometimes be a challenge to find a supplier who is willing to disclose product composition data and have that information reflect safety and circularity standards. In order to prioritize circularity, the early stages of product development might mean paying more for those materials that will meet your standards of circularity later. However, the benefit of being a leader in the transition to the circular economy will pay off later in market returns and global well-being. 

3. Advocate for Infrastructure

Product development, supply chain management, and all of the things that come with them require quality data and data management. Having software that can help you manage your product composition, reach out to your supply chain partners, screen your product for regulations, and so on will truly be a game-changer in reaching circularity goals. Revisiting the aims of circular design - (1) maintain and/or repair, (2) reuse and redistribute, (3) refurbish and remanufacture, and (4) recycle - requires high-quality product information in order to repurpose or recycle products. This is one place where many manufacturers get stuck and is also why there is a premium on material transparency information. Toxnot is one of the platforms that can aid and facilitate data infrastructure to meet circularity goals at every point in the supply chain. 

 

Understanding Critiques of Circularity and your Role

The circular economy is not free of criticisms, and understanding them might just make efforts towards circularity more effective. Corvellec et al.’s work covers a robust critique of the circular economy, generally positing that, “​​the circular economy has diffused limits, unclear theoretical grounds, and that its implementation faces structural obstacles.” Corvellec et al address the fact that circular economy is still quite new and for that reason is hard to define and up for interpretation. They address what they refer to as the “neglect of established knowledge” in that based on the laws of thermodynamics,  materials cannot be destroyed, only converted. They argue that engineering out waste where the loop is closed cannot exist because of dissipation and entropy within the cycle, therefore new materials and energy are required. Corvellec et al also mentioned the difficulties of implementation at the policy, organization, and individual levels, the uncertainty of circularities impact, and the need for disruption in a corporate-led model. The authors close this critique as such:

“We believe that it is time for producers and the state to reclaim the idea of circularity and to create “a closed, material loop limited in size and space, based on the principle of fair distribution of resources” (Johansson & Henriksson, 2020, p. 148). Drawing on the critiques listed above, a pathway toward circularity would be a circular economy that is modest.....” 

The points made by Corvellec et al. do not dismiss circularity, but argue for a more robust understanding and plan for solutions in order to meet the ambitious goals many nations and companies have adopted. In many ways, this article is doing what we are -- acknowledging the difficulties and parts of a circular economy that need attention and encouraging a holistic approach to its execution. 

At the same time these academic critiques probably undervalue the simplicity of circularity as a design ideal that can galvanize people to action.  The very "bigness" that makes circularity so easy to critique is also what gives it power.  Organizations need to consider both aspirational and operation aspects of circularity in order to design effective paths forward. Uninspiring solutions may not be a solution at all for real people in the real world.

Bold ideas have always been pivotal even with imperfect execution. We’ve gone to space and walked on the moon, mapped the human genome, created the internet. Of course, the long-established infrastructure for our current system will need some adjusting, but we simply do not have the option of continuing on with business as usual. Instead of accepting circularity’s faults as a loss - let’s take the critiques, hold on to the inspiration and get to problem-solving. 

 

Come back in the coming weeks to see how Toxnot customers are embracing circularity and making it a reality! In the meantime, download our free Circular Implementation Guide to get a head start on developing your company's circularity goals.

 

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Resources

Saidani Michael et al. (2017). Hybrid top-down and bottom-up framework to measure products' circularity performance. Proceedings of the 21st International Conference on Engineering Design, ICED 17, August 2017, Vancouver, Canada.

Corvellec, H., Stowell, A. F., & Johansson, N. (2021). Critiques of the circular economy. Journal of Industrial Ecology. doi:10.1111/jiec.13187


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