Recently, I undertook a small, qualitative survey of the role of designers in the plastics value chain in the Netherlands, and the potential for circular design. The background for this survey was the Plastics Value Chain Agreement.
For the survey, I undertook a round of interviews with about 25 people in the sectors of (industrial) design, research and higher education, manufacturing, and recycling.
I found that plastics production is a complex and diversified value chain. There are many kinds of polymers, products, markets, and all have their own characteristics. The role of the designer in the plastics value chain is not an easy one to grasp.
When we talk about circular design, what do we mean?
There are different perspectives, with some people focusing on design for recycling or even design for longevity, and others looking at possibilities to design for products made from recycled material. Circular design is being used to encompass all these perspectives. It takes a life-cycle perspective at products and tries to go for the best option from an environmental point of view.
An important feature of circular design is the emphasis on the need for new business models. Not only the product is being redesigned, but the chains of supply and the ways by which customer needs are satisfied as well. When you supply a function, or accompany a product with a service (say, maintenance), the relationship between supplier and customer changes. So a designer has to look not only at the product, but also at the wider context, including the product’s functions and the needs it fulfils.
The designers I spoke to are well-educated and well-informed about sustainability. They know about recycled materials and life-cycle analyses, and they are willing to try and convince producers, marketers and consumers of the possibilities of sustainable design. They have also discovered the importance of different ways of organizing the product development process. Maybe they are not representative for the profession as a whole. But they are an inspiring group of frontrunners who might be able to make change happen.
These designers mentioned several stumbling blocks for circular design that they encountered. When it came to the use of recycled materials, the limited availability of sufficiently large supplies of recycled material of a consistent quality was an important bottleneck. Furthermore, designers and manufacturers mentioned the (negative) image and perceived aesthetics of recycled materials, and the lack of knowledge, especially with producers, of the possibilities of recycled materials. Other obstructions to the functioning of a circular economy in the plastics chain that were mentioned are the lack of transparency on the quality of recycled materials on the market; and legislation.
What can be done?
An essential step would be to increase technical knowledge of materials and their applications through research and development. For innovations to be brought to the market, public and private partners need to look at the options for sharing risks, sharing knowledge and open innovation.
Technical universities and universities for applied science are doing research and developing courses on sustainable design and on recycling. It remains necessary, however, to mainstream recycling knowledge and sustainability knowledge into curricula of design engineering. Also, more attention can be paid to updating professionals’ skills and knowledge, e.g. of 3D-printing.
It isn’t enough to increase knowledge about circular design. There is also the position of the designer in the value chain to consider. Designers are not always in a position of sufficient power to implement change. They can mediate between producer and material supplier, but if they do not have enough bargaining power, they won’t be able to acquire materials of sufficient quality. And to be able to persuade producers to try more innovative and sustainable options requires not only knowledge of recycled materials, but also experience, a relationship of trust, and the willingness to explore consumer markets. Some are already showing the way, and there are fine examples of sustainable design on the market, for instance the Ahrend 360 chair, Interface carpet tiles or the Philips Eco-Senseo.
So, a first step on the way to increase the market for sustainably designed products is to show what is already possible. What we need to do is showcase examples of well-designed (consumer) products of recycled material, of design for recycling, of product-service-systems and new business models, to a wide audience. A next step could be to come up with easy-to-follow guidelines for designing with recycled materials. And last but not least, a dialogue between actors in the value chain should take off aimed at concrete cooperation and actions.
Much has been said about legislation, especially European legislation standing in the way of the circular economy. Present European legislation, by strictly regulating the management of hazardous waste and dangerous substances, is felt to create obstacles to the use of recycled plastics, and the circular economy in general. Maybe it is time to amend some of the legislation, without losing sight of the protection of health and environmental safety.
The coming months will see a fresh round of discussions on the circular economy in Brussels, after new policy outlines were published last week. Designers, too, might want to seize the opportunity to make themselves heard.
In the Netherlands, the Plastics Value Chain Agreement is set to move into concrete action and explore new ways of collaboration. If you want to get involved, look at the (Dutch) website: http://www.kunststofkringloop.nl