One of the main goals of a circular economy is to remove our reliance on finite resources, therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the harmful effects of the take-make-waste economy on our natural ecosystems. Circular design principles keep materials at their highest value for as long as possible, and recirculates materials to another life after they are used. Designing a product to fit into this new approach is not trivial, it requires a shift in mindset and quantitative analysis to maximize impact. 

To help with this transition, there are both design and business strategies that can be implemented to keep materials and resources in circulation. For example, companies can shift business models to provide products-as-a-service so that devices can be used longer and more easily serviced, they can establish new markets by collecting used products and selling refurbished ones, or engineers can design modular products that can easily be repaired and upgraded. 

Although each of these strategies has a net benefit, deciding which circular design strategy to implement is challenging and knowing where to focus design efforts is often unclear. The biggest missed opportunity when creating a system is not considering circularity early enough in its development, when the design is the least constrained and resources can be appropriately allocated.The early development stages are also when design direction is least defined so dealing with this uncertainty can be a challenge when making informed decisions.

To overcome the uncertainty and determine which circular strategy to implement, Synapse has established a data-based approach to inspire design direction. First, we use quantitative analysis methods to identify the largest environmental impacts of the product design. This knowledge is then combined with circular design tools to reduce the impact associated with the highlighted environmental hot spots in design iterations. 

For example, when a product’s initial life cycle assessment shows the display as the component with the highest carbon footprint, we can use this knowledge when we perform disassembly mapping to focus on reducing the number of steps it takes to remove this part. This allows it to be more accessible for reuse or repair, keeping the high impact component in use for longer. By quantifying the environmental savings of circular design options, we can determine which is the most impactful circular design strategy to implement, answering questions such as “should all of your design efforts be focused on using recycled materials or should you focus on reverse logistics to provide repair or refurbishment services?”

The product’s end of life strategy must be considered in the design process to effectively design for the circular economy. By using data to evaluate strategies, companies and organizations will change the way products and services are introduced, with business models and product architectures that support circularity.  

There are a lot of reasons businesses will choose to join this transition to a more circular economy. Perhaps it’s consumer or environmental pressures. Or new regulations like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) that add costs to selling products to pay for their responsible disposal. Regardless of the reason, all companies must start taking more responsibility for the products and services they bring into this world – for our planet and for the future of humanity.