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Circular products conserve resources and reduce emissions. Young designers in particular are facing up to the challenges of our time with designs that leave linear economic activity behind and focus on the circular economy. 

By Jasmin Jouhar

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, there was often talk of the “new normal” to describe how our daily lives had changed as a result of Covid. In the meantime, we know that there will be no return to the “old normal”. Because the pandemic, but also the war in Europe, the energy shortage, inflation, the climate catastrophe with floods, droughts and forest fires have put our everyday life into a permanent crisis mode. Many young designers have been more far-sighted: their view of the world has been in crisis mode for a long time, their perspective on the future often gloomy. This is why it is even more important for them to seek answers to the many challenges of the present with their work. They often develop projects according to the principles of circular design, as a series of current graduate works from German universities show.

Circular economy in the building industry

The construction industry is one of the biggest polluters of all, with 55 percent of the total German waste volume consisting of construction and demolition waste. The production of cement for concrete releases immense amounts of CO2 worldwide. But in comparison to the energy industry or traffic, for example, the burdens have hardly been discussed for a long time. With her Master’s thesis “5Tons”, Maren Klamser aims to create material cycles in the construction industry and thus conserve resources and reduce emissions. Until now, recycling construction waste has effectively meant downcycling, for example when demolition material is used in road construction. For her degree at the Bauhaus University Weimar, Klamser therefore developed the material “5Tons”, a recyclable, mineral solid made from brick dust from broken masonry and recycled aggregate from mineral construction waste. This enables her to replace both cement and sand, at least in part. In addition, she designed a dry stacking system for the material in order to save mortar as well. However, Maren Klamser still sees a need for development for “5 Tons”. “Currently, most building materials in Germany are assigned classifications to ensure consistent quality and associated safety standards,” she explains. “Provided high-quality construction waste recycling is an option in the future, ways must be found to deal with the fluctuating quality of construction waste.”

Kreislaufwirtschaft German Design Graduates
5Tons is a recyclable mineral solid made from brick dust from broken masonry and recycled aggregate from mineral construction waste, © Maren Klamser

Due to the shape of the stone, mortar can be dispensed with, © Maren Klamser

While heaps of rubble pile up visibly before our very eyes, the subject of Sophia Reißenweber’s Bachelor’s thesis at Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule Halle is practically invisible, but no less urgent: micropollutants in wastewater. According to the German Federal Environment Agency, 414 different pharmaceutical residues can be detected in the soil, rivers and drinking water in Germany alone. The sewage treatment plants often fail to filter out the residues, and they end up in the drinking water. With her work “Flushed. Digest the Rest”, Reißenweber suggests tackling the contaminants where they occur: in the toilet. She has developed a toilet paper enriched with mycelium. Activated by flushing, the mycelium can metabolise the micropollutants dissolved in the water in the sewage system and thus render them harmless. For “Flushed”, she experimented with different types of fungi, tried out materials and tested how a layer of mycelium can be dried and reactivated later. “Fungi can withstand extreme conditions, don’t need light and adapt to the fluctuations in the sewage system,” says Reißenweber. “The integration of living organisms into industrial cycles is becoming increasingly important to generate innovative and environmentally friendly economic processes.”

“Flushed” is a toilet paper enriched with mycelium, © Sophia Reißenweber

Open source platform for crisis management

Circular Economy German Design Graduates
Logo of the Whole Earth Project, © Louis Bindernagel

Louis Bindernagel’s “Whole Earth Project”, his bachelor’s thesis in product design at the Berlin University of the Arts, is on a completely different, overarching level. Bindernagel created a digital platform that is intended to connect designers, local producers and initiatives worldwide. In the spirit of the open-source idea, questions can be launched on the platform and designs and construction plans can be shared. The products can then be produced locally with existing means and resources. Bindernagel sees “Whole Earth Project” as a tool to be able to react better and faster to humanitarian and ecological crises. The concept was inspired by a phenomenon from the early phase of the Covid pandemic: all over the world, people were developing DIY face shields and visors to protect themselves from aerosols. They posted their designs online and improved them with feedback from the digital community. The bachelor thesis is also based on Bindernagel’s experience as a social designer in various humanitarian and sustainable projects. The “Whole Earth Project” platform is still a hypothetical concept. However, the designer has founded an association with other people to continue working together on the idea of an open, decentralised and globally networked design process. 

circular economy German Design Graduates
Screenshot of the platform, © Louis Bindernagel

In many companies and private households it has long been common practice to store used shipping boxes and padded envelopes – for the next shipment. This saves money and packaging material. Milena Huber converted this practice into a product concept for her Master’s thesis. “reLoopbox” is the name of the alternative reusable shipping packaging that she developed as a final project at Bauhaus University Weimar. The “reLoopbox” consists of three parts: a sleeve and a sliding box made of stable corrugated cardboard and a band made of paper. The two-part cardboard slipcase can be folded and stored accordingly to save space until the next time it is needed. The banderole in turn fulfils several functions: It offers space for the address field, franking, logos and other individualised graphic elements. It guarantees the sealing of the box during dispatch and protects sensitive data. As a standardised product, “reLoopbox” could also be used on a larger scale by companies and retailers. And the more of the boxes in circulation, the more naturally they would be kept and used again and again. 

reLoopbox, © Milena Huber
Kreislaufwirtschaft German Design Graduates
the circle of reLoopbox, © Milena Huber

German Design Graduates
The designers mentioned are part of this year’s German Design Graduates. GDG is an initiative with the purpose of promoting the next generation of product design graduates and presenting state-recognised universities, art colleges and universities of applied sciences. Initiated in 2019 by Prof. Ineke Hans, Prof. Hermann Weizenegger, Prof. Mark Braun and Katrin Krupka, the German Design Council has been the project sponsor since 2022. Honouring, presenting and promoting the achievements and solutions of graduates in their quality and diversity is the most important component of the GDG initiative.
On 2 October 2022, the winners of the Circular Design, Social Design, Design Research and Design Culture awards were announced, including the “Whole Earth Project” by Louis Bindernagel, which received the Circular Design Award. The German Design Graduates Show 2022 in the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Art) der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden with its focus on “Perspectives for Graduates in Product Design” is dedicated to the central themes of our time under the influence of the serious changes and developments in politics, society and the environment, and shows the most interesting ideas and approaches to solutions by 40 young designers from over 20 German universities of product design. The exhibition can be visited in Dresden until 31 October.

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