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In the Circular Design Guidebook, polymer manufacturer Covestro presents approaches and strategies on how the transformation to a circular economy can succeed.

Von Martina Metzner

Circular Design Guidebook
Circular Design Guidebook © Covestro

Covestro is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of high-tech polymer materials. The company’s products and application solutions can be found in many areas of modern life. Innovation and sustainability drive the group to constant new developments – both in its products and in its processes and plants.

In the Circular Design Guidebook launched in 2020, Covestro presents approaches and strategies on how the transformation to a circular economy can succeed. Instead of the linear economy, the circular economy should be the driving force for the future in all sectors. The central idea of the circular economy is to use resources efficiently, to extend the life of products and to make them more recyclable. The guide not only defines the concept of the circular economy, it also explains how to transform production. The only solution for the economy is a comprehensive shift to circular business models that reduce the consumption of natural resources as much as possible and close production loops. This guide provides a valuable framework for product designers that addresses the resource constraints in a linear economy and the opportunities of a circular economy. 

With the headlamp module concept from Covestro, significantly fewer parts are required. This saves on materials. © Covestro

For a sustainable transition from a linear to a circular economy, product design plays a crucial but often underestimated role, affecting all phases of production, use and recycling. Product designers therefore have the opportunity to influence a product’s routes, whether linear or circular, as early as the design phase. This is not just about recyclable materials alone, but about a systematic life-cycle approach to material selection.

The demand for raw materials is increasing

Global demand for essential raw materials comes mainly from five sectors: Energy, transport, healthcare, defence and electronics. Due to population growth and the rapid development of technology, the demand for raw materials in these industries is constantly increasing. However, the stock of natural resources will not be sufficient to meet this increasing demand. As we are facing a shortage of natural resources, the large amount of waste generated by the “take>make>dispose” economic system of the last 200 years should be converted into resources. Recycling is the big keyword here: if the material is recyclable and reusable and the original product can be easily disassembled, cleaned and sorted, and at the same time is available in sufficient quantity, its reuse as a new resource can be achieved.

A circular economy is an economic development model that aims to decouple resource consumption from economic growth through regenerative and restorative concepts. It consists of the following principles, according to Covestro’s Circular Design Guidebook: 1. change starts at the source, 2. a change of perspective – waste is a resource, 3. maintaining high value use, 4. thinking in cycles (biological and technical cycles).

Five strategies for the circular economy

Establishing a circular economy business model is achieved through “Circular Design”. The Covestro Circular Design Guidebook presents five circular economy strategies and analyses how they relate to the value chain and business models. Drawing on research published by leading international organisations and academic researchers, Covestro examines the five circular design strategies in relation to the electronics, electrical and household appliance industries. These include dematerialisation, product as a service, design for extended product life, circular material choice and modular design. 

Circular Design Guidebook
CMF Toolkitchips: Material selection is the first step towards circular design, © Covestro

The last chapter of the Circular Design Guidebook is about material selection. As far as physical products are involved, the implementation of all Circular Design strategies requires material selection. This chapter presents a systematic process of material selection to help designers open the door to circular economy and sustainability. The right material selection can achieve an 80 per cent impact. In this context, material selection is the first step towards circular design. When designing a physical product, material selection can have multiple impacts. Not only does it have an impact on the energy and resource efficiency of the product, but also on the size of the market for recycled materials.

Material selection guide

How can designers ensure successful material selection? The guide highlights two important aspects:
1) Circularity throughout the life cycle: it is important to select not only recyclable materials, but also materials that promote product circulation.
2) Towards a broader approach to sustainability: Is the best material the one that improves the circularity of a product? Not necessarily. Pragmatically speaking, electronic products need to comply not only with the circularity idea, but also with increasingly stringent safety regulations, energy efficiency requirements and environmental certifications.

In response to the aspects just discussed, this guide provides a material selection process and worksheets that include these three main features: The product life cycle as a framework, evaluation criteria and quantitative indicators, and a scalable framework for sustainability indicators. The process is divided into three steps, each of which is helped by worksheets in Covestro’s Circular Design Guide Book.
1) Preparation: Formation of a cross-functional project, bringing together the project team and a joint strategic analysis with product targets.
2) Evaluation of indicators for assessment: Using worksheet 2, the team selects the product assessment criteria and quantitative indicators, and then conducts an assessment of the current status.
3) Evaluation of new material: Combining Worksheet 3 and Worksheet 4, the team selects a target component, searches for materials, gathers information, and then creates a new evaluation to compare with the current evaluation.

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