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With the transformation to a circular economy, we are facing a necessary paradigm shift, which will only succeed if everyone participates: politics, business and society. Design plays a decisive role in this.

By Martina Metzner.

The Corona crisis makes it clear: if they want to, people can. We should also take this to heart in view of the planetary boundaries we are currently pushing against. To protect climate, resources and biodiversity, we must act now. At the same time, it will be our task to decouple economic value creation from resource consumption. Design is an important changemaker in this complex endeavour, because 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is determined in its design. And it can communicate new things and make them attractive. This is precisely why the EU is addressing designers with the New European Bauhaus initiative. They bear a great responsibility of which they are slowly but steadily becoming aware in view of the many current discourses.

Linear is a dead end

Holz ist ein wichtiger Baustein für die auf die Circular Economy. Systemspielzeug Lokke von Philipp Enzmann
Lokke system toy by Philipp Enzmann. Photo: Philipp Enzmann, Bauhaus University Weimar

The transformation to a circular economy plays a decisive role in this. It is not only an essential component of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, but also a declared goal of the European Union within the framework of the EU Green Deal. And no longer just with a view to waste management, as circular economy was understood in the decades before. But rather holistically along the entire value chain, in order to keep materials constantly in circular flows. Because the linear model of a take-make-dispose value creation system, in which valuable primary raw materials are extracted and processed, only to end up in the rubbish, leads to a dead end. In many respects. We can no longer afford this waste. In Germany, we have a particular obligation, as the current per capita demand for raw materials is 22.8 tonnes per year, which is twice the value of the world’s population, and the trend is rising. If the entire world population were to consume resources at the same level as Germany, we would need three earths. And at the moment, only 8.6 percent of the world’s economy is circular.

Thinking climate protection and resource conservation together

A circular economy would enable resource savings of 68 percent in Germany by 2050 compared to 2018, through improved efficiency technologies, longer product life cycles and greater use of secondary raw materials. But not only that. The extraction and production of primary raw materials are also responsible for 50 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Furthermore, it causes 90 percent of biodiversity loss and water stress. This shows that we need to think and treat climate protection much more strongly together with resource and biodiversity protection.

Vergleichbar mit der Energiewende

The transformation to a circular economy can only succeed if everyone participates: politics, business and society. And it must come as quickly as possible. According to the German Council for Sustainable Development, which advises the German government and is made up of 15 experts, the structural change to a circular economy will be similar in scale to the energy turnaround (“Energiewende”). In addition to political framework conditions through new laws and subsidies, the economy and, last but not least, society as a whole are also called upon to establish a new way of dealing with resources. This also goes hand in hand with new ways of living and consuming, in short, a cultural turnaround is needed. We have already produced so much. why don’t we use it? For a circular society, it is natural to preserve the old and share things instead of owning them.

Circular Economy zum Anfassen: RePack aus Dänemark kann man einfach wieder zurücksenden
RePack from Denmark has developed packaging that can be easily returned. Photo: Repack

New Work and Raw Material Independence

However, circular economy is not only about saving the world, but is also associated with many opportunities for prosperity. Through the transformation to a circular economy, we can create new jobs, for example in the preservation and repair of products. The European Union expects the implementation of its Circular Economy Action Plan alone to increase added value by 80 billion euros. In addition, dependency on raw material imports can be reduced through regional material cycles, which is already becoming more important, as we can see in recent months when raw material shortages are occurring and global supply chains are partially collapsing. We are looking in particular at rare earths, which are increasingly needed for new environmental technologies, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel or platinum. Even if all this sounds promising, there will probably also be losers, as the Friedrich Ebert Foundation states in its study conducted by the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. And especially those who miss the boat.

Circulose bietet Baumwolle aus recylten Kleidungsstücken
Circulose offers cotton made from recycled garments such as jeans. Photo: Alexander Donka for Renewcell

A new network for cooperation

The socio-ecological transformation towards this new economic model will start at different levels and interact with each other. This requires interdisciplinary networks, new collaborations and a certain openness and flexibility, not only locally, nationally or on a European level, but optimally globally. Digital technologies are the driver in this new circular economy to create transparency, but also practical transfer. For example, to make materials traceable by means of product passports or the Internet of Things.

Design for a long product life

Möbel-Studienprojekt „Omnia“
In the “Omnia” furniture study project, all configurations are reversible. Photo: Martin Fenske, Berlin University of the Arts

For companies, this poses a special challenge that they have to face holistically. It is simply not enough to now offer a product X in a recycled material version. That is not thought through to the end, and it is by no means circular. A circular economy must be approached systemically. It needs new business models in which products are taken back or no longer sold, but only lent out. It needs a closer relationship with customers, and with it new communication. We need new design approaches that take the entire product life cycle into account in order to make products more durable by making them easier to repair or recycle. It needs a different kind of cooperation with suppliers and partners that is no longer linear and hierarchical, but parallel, networked and at eye level. And, of course, it also needs security through standards, economic incentives and clear framework conditions on the part of politics that promote the circular economy, for example in the context of public procurement, through the levying of recycling quotas and recyclate shares or tax benefits for circular products. Infrastructures such as take-back and deposit systems, material storage or recycling yards should be partially publicly supported or made available. And ultimately, regional material cycles should be preferred to global ones in order to save energy, but also to ensure independence.

Circular in different ways

It is important that we address the entire value chain, and not just focus on the waste. Recycling (chemical or mechanical) is the least effective of all circulation methods, as it involves a relatively high energy input. More effective is the reuse or remanufacturing of products or components (for example, through modular, flexible construction, which can ensure updateability). And we still discuss the topic of avoidance far too little (i.e. the “reduce” of the three “Rs” of the circular economy) of primary raw materials. This also offers economic potential, for example through business models such as the sharing economy or product-as-a-service.

Nevertheless, recycling needs to be addressed more intensively, especially because until now it has mainly been a downcycling of materials. To preserve material quality, products need to be designed differently and technologies need to be improved. Composite materials can also be designed in such a way that they can be taken apart later in a single sort. Another problem that arises from increased recycling is the “pushing off” of the waste problem to the global south, which absolutely must come to an end.

Last but not least, we need to pay more attention to natural materials, because they are renewable, can partly store CO2, like wood, for example, and can be returned to the biological cycle. However, there are also some things that must be viewed critically here, such as when “biodegradable” or “biobased” materials can only be composted under certain conditions or encourage increased consumption (rebound effect). The fact that there are still different degrees of circularity could be illustrated, for example, by uniform official measuring techniques and environmental labels that have yet to be developed. Research is needed here.

Mit „regrowth” untersucht Simon Gehring die Kombination ganzer Äste mit Computational Design
Computational Design trifft das Naturmaterial Holz

With the “regrowth” project, Simon Gehring is investigating the use of whole branches in combination with computational design. Photos: Simon Gehring

Circularity made in Germany

The EU has outlined the goals relatively clearly in the EU Green Deal and the Circular economy Action Plan and is getting some things underway for the various industries, but also across sectors; further directives and regulations will follow in the next few years. For example, legislation to ban single-use plastic packaging, the “right to repair” or a new “Sustainable Products Initiative” to revise the Ecodesign Directive, which aims at a product life cycle approach. It is now important that the European states also quickly adapt this and translate it into their own strategies. The Circular Economy Initiative with its Circular Economy Road Map and also the Council for Sustainability for Germany recommend anchoring this politically within the framework of their own comprehensive strategy and setting up platforms for the transfer of knowledge and practice. At the same time, business and society must also set out on the road. The idea: Germany could be one of the global pioneers of a circular economy, similar to mechanical engineering. So what are we still waiting for?

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