Circular Product Design
Lessons learned from from a product designer
I was recently in a group talking about the Circular Economy and we were visited by a guest speaker, Mark Hester, Co-Founder of The Imagination Factory. Mark gave us his first-hand insights of the challenges with circular product design.
My takeaway… there’s always a compromise!
Mark talked about two products. I’m slightly mixing the two stories, but bear with me...
The brief from one of the Clients was ‘sustainable materials’. What does that mean? Should he use recycled content, make the product reusable or recyclable, minimise material, manufacture locally, or anything else under that banner? He managed to tease out that the ideal was to be circular - use recycled materials, that could be recycled again in the future.
Whilst this ambition is great, has anyone spotted the flaw in the brief? Recycling is still the lowest form of resuse in the circular economy. So we still have a long way to go.
I wonder, was the brief lacking the piece on reuse deliberately or did the Client lack knowledge and just consider recycling the pinnacle of circularity without realising?
Mark told us how there are many, many types of plastics, and the characteristics and performance varies. One of the products was for food stuff, the other was to house an electrical component - the choice of specific plastic was different for each.
The food stuff product needed a rubberised element for grip. We heard how rubber is not recyclable yet, and this was a dead-end for the product in terms of being truly circular. So the compromise, make the rubber piece separate/detachable. In fact, there was a design positive here, because the ability to separate the rubber element would make this food related item easier to clean.
I questioned whether Mark was putting convenience above circularity with the rubber element. He assured me this was carefully considered with the Client who felt strongly that the rubber grip element was fundamental. More on the rubber later.
I found the talk from Mark highlighted to me a question that I see regularly in construction and development… how to balance circularity with low carbon. Sometimes these counteract rather than compliment each other. I still don’t think we understand the subtleties well enough - instead we follow our instinct or crude estimates. What do I mean, well…
Should you design for minimal material? That would be low carbon (and low cost), but the item might have thin walls and be less robust. If the end goal is only to recycle, then perhaps this is OK. But if you want the product to be reused, then it should surely be robust, perhaps with thicker walls?
How might the items (or its components) be reused in the future? If there is a possibility of these items being used for other things, perhaps the design should be more basic, more standard. Does that mean Mark should remove all the ‘design flare’ and tiny details, to make the product more generic? Or perhaps make it bigger (more material again?), to be a standard size and more likely to be reused?
On a commercial point, Mark explained how plastic is very low value in the eyes of recyclers. So what? Well this led him to consider using metal within the design (even though plastic could have performed the same function), to increase the attractiveness of the item to a future recycler. Mark was quick to point out that using metal would be additive in benefit too, for example reducing the quantity of plastic or increasing robustness. If metal was to be used, of course it would need to be easily removable.
Pricing & Product
Back to the rubber…
I asked Mark why the rubber piece wasn’t sold separately, as this was clearly a user preference thing - based on how someone considered they would use/hold the item (one-handed with help from the rubber grip on a table, or two-handed with no need for the rubber piece). Nice idea I was told, which would help limit the amount of non-recyclable rubber being made, consumed, sent to waste.
But, money rules the world. I was given a lesson in the commercials of manufacturing, supply and demand. If 100 pieces of the plastic part were made, how many of the rubber items should be made? What if they were short of rubber items, this would affect ability to sell the primary product, reducing profit margins. Long story short, life is simpler, costs are cheaper and numbers are more predictable if you make 100 plastic pieces and 100 rubber pieces. Unfortunately this means you’re getting a rubber grip whether you need it or not, and you never even know there could have been a choice.
Will these things actually be recycled?
My final question (I know, I asked a lot of questions), was whether anyone would even recycle such products. A reminder, one was to hold food stuff (baby food), the other was to house a piece of electronics.
I posed a view that if I were at home looking to ‘get rid’ of either of those items, I would look at my recycling bins and very quickly discount them as not suitable, instead concluding through elimination that there was only one place for them… the household waste bin, heading to… landfill. The whole group agreed. We just don’t understand the rules around recycling, nor do we know what can or cannot be recycled. I’m not sure how to solve this… better labelling on the products?
It’s great that Mark is pushing this and that Clients are asking for circular products, but there is still clearly a long way to go.
I also think that being fully circular should not be the aim. The aim should be to find the right balance of low carbon, best product and circularity… with some sort of embedded clear instruction on how to dispose, recycle or reuse.
Then there is compromise. Is this a] compromise of convenience for the user (no rubber grip); or b] compromise of the brief (not fully circular); or c] compromise of profit (rubber sold separately).