Commerce and Consumer Goods

Sustainable product design: circular innovation is not about recycling

Recycling is often the focus of circular economy conversations. But it’s actually the last leg in the lifecycle of a circular economy product. Here we explore how considered sustainable product design and development can minimise the reliance on recycling and prime your circular economy strategy to succeed. 

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In a previous post, we explored some emerging circular economy models and the value of sustainable supply chains. Here we explore a contentious topic in sustainable product design and development: the ‘r word’ (recycling)...

Sustainable product design and development is not about recycling

There’s a problem with recycling. Firstly, it eradicates most of the residual value of your product, retaining only the value of the raw materials. Secondly, since most products contain a mix of materials, the quality and true quantity of recycled materials reduces over time.  If we’re brutally honest, today’s recycling economy is nothing more than a slowed-down linear economy – based on the credo ‘take, make, waste’.  

A genuine circular economy, by contrast, is one where all material cycles are closed and you only use renewable energy. Waste and emissions are largely eliminated. Recycling still has its place, but it’s the least important element in the value chain.  

You see, the aim of a circular economy is first to maximise the service life of the product through repair and maintenance. If it’s no longer feasible to continue using your product, even after repairs, it’s time for the next phase, where the product is remanufactured and put back into use. Only when this is no longer possible do you come to the final phase: material recycling. In other words, recycling is the last leg in the lifecycle of your circular product.  

If that’s the case then, how can you put sustainable product design and delivery at the heart of your circular economy strategy? What’s the benefits of doing this – and ensuring that recycling is the last leg in your product’s lifecycle?  

Product development is a key consideration in your circular economy strategy

By baking sustainability into your products, processes, and platforms today, you prime yourself to lead disruptive change in tomorrow’s circular and connected economy. Sustainable product design and development, in particular, is an essential consideration in your circular economy strategy.  

After all, around 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined in the earliest stages of development. Considering sustainability from the outset of product design and development can therefore be a deciding factor in whether you’re able to minimise a product’s environmental impact, or even generate a positive impact.   

Here are three sustainable product design and development approaches you can explore in your circular economy strategy:  

  • Sustainable redesign. In sustainable redesign, your business model is largely unchanged, but you redesign your product iteratively to make it more sustainable. One example is the use of recycled plastics.  

  • Sustainable product innovation. A new product is developed with a focus on sustainability from the outset. The business model often remains identical. One example is the Fairphone.   

  • Sustainable product service systems (PSS). This involves developing a completely new ecosystem of business models, sales systems, services, hardware, and software. Such ‘radical innovation’ requires the organisation to undergo a fundamental change. A well-known example of this is Signify’s ‘light as a service’.   

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How to optimise for sustainability during the product lifecycle

The journey towards a circular economy and sustainable product innovation involves continuous improvement. Here are four ways to alter the sustainability of your product during its lifecycle to bring it in line with the goals of a circular economy:  

  • Cycling. This is where you keep materials and energy within system cycles through reuse, repair, remanufacturing, and recycling.  

  • Extending. Extend a product’s service life through long-life design, modularisation, marketing, maintenance, and repair.  

  • Intensifying. Intensify the product’s service life through ‘sharing economy’ solutions.  

  • Dematerialising. Ensure a product’s benefits aren’t tied to hardware by replacing with service and software solutions.  

So how do these strategies look in practice? For a great example, let’s look at our collaboration with IonField Systems, a company that manufactures plasma cleaning products so laboratories can protect against shortages and minimise their environmental impact.  

Cycling enables labs to reduce carbon footprints by 70%

Medical laboratories generate vast amounts of hazardous waste that can’t be recycled. Our client IonField Systems had developed a patented plasma-cleaning technology that enables reliable, validated reuse of labware such as disposable plastic pipette tips and microplates.   

But IonField Systems wanted to validate whether the cleaning process they had developed really was more sustainable than continuing with single-use labware. To uncover the answers, we conducted a lifecycle assessment (LCA) of the plant and processes.   

We always recommend this kind of analysis as a first step so that the products with the biggest impact can be identified and appropriate action taken. All products are analysed, which makes clear very quickly which components or materials cause an impact, how big that impact is, and when it occurs. For example, during production, transport, use, or disposal. In the longer term, the results of the lifecycle assessment can also be used to prioritise sustainable innovations and introduce appropriate measures during development.  

The LCA showed that the new process reduced the labs’ carbon footprint by 10 to 40%. The analysis also formed the basis for a comparison tool that can calculate carbon dioxide reduction on a lab-specific basis, adding ecological credentials to rank alongside the financial and technical selling points.   

What’s more, our LCA identified hotspots in the process where there was significant opportunity to reduce the environmental impact. This showed, for example, that the cleaning fluid had a big impact during the use stage. Applying the cycling strategy outlined above, a sustainable redesign, focused on reusing the cleaning fluid, led to a further 70% reduction in the lab carbon footprint.   

The transition to sustainable products is a strategic journey

The IonField Systems is a reminder of some of the key learnings in sustainable product design and development and circular economy strategy.  

Recycling must never be the top priority. The aim should always be to reduce, reuse, repair, and remanufacture. Integrating a sustainability-focused, circular thinking mindset into your development processes, and ensuring you have the right culture in place, is crucial if you want to improve your products’ sustainability and circularity.   

Last but not least, it's important to keep progressing iteratively with your transformation towards a circular economy. A good first step can be determining where you currently stand by conducting an LCA of your bestselling products – and using the results to take appropriate action.  

Interested in conducting a lifecycle assessment of your business? Got questions on your circular product strategy? Get in touch! We’d love to hear from you.

Contact person for Switzerland

Ronny Hoffmann

Expert Systems Engineer

Ronny Hoffmann is a systems engineer and has been with Zühlke since September 2017. After completing his BSc ZFH mechanical engineering, he gained in-depth experience in interdisciplinary product development, industrialization, additive manufacturing and computer-aided visualization.

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