A Circular Economy

Your constantly-updated definition of a Circular Economy and collection of videos and articles

What is a Circular Economy?

A circular economy is an economic system that keeps resources in use for as long as possible. Materials are recycled, reused, made renewable or regenerated to reduce waste.

An ideal circular economy should have renewable energy and products that reduce the use of non-renewable materials. As opposed to unusable waste, circular disposal methods generate new resources. For example, compost from food scraps creates new soil to grow crops. If non-renewable resources are used, the products should be kept functional as long as possible through repair, recycling and remanufacturing.

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Circular economies are the key to sustainable and resilient societies. These practices can heal, or at least not actively harm, the ecosystem. A circular economy puts less strain on the ecosystem and creates a reliable source of resources for generations.

This model seeks to reduce or eliminate unsustainable practices like deforestation or strip mines. These systems can better avoid shortages and societal collapses when resources run out.

However, the goal in the short term is to create economies that can become more circular, even if a perfectly circular economy isn’t able to be implemented.

How Do We Make a Circular Economy?

Many elements go into the transition to a circular economy, and it won't happen in a single day. Government incentives and other policy changes can help businesses justify more circular business practices, such as taxes on waste or incentives for renewable energy. Governments can pass and maintain right-to-repair laws that allow people a legal means to repair their products, which increases the product's overall lifespan. But what does a circular economy look like?

The circular economy butterfly diagram by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is an excellent example of how a circular economy should look. This diagram demonstrates how each stage of a product can use recycled or reused materials to manage resources better.

The circular economy butterfly diagram by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation illustrates how we can minimize waste using both renewable and non-renewable materials.

© Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Fair Use

For regenerating resources, like food or wood, disposal makes new material, usually through decomposition. Processes like chemical treatment or composting accelerate this process and make materials useful more quickly.

Finite materials like iron or copper need to be recycled into raw materials and returned to the parts manufacturers to make more products again.

Product manufacturers can refurbish or remake broken products to maintain the use of the product for far longer.

Service providers can coordinate ways to reuse or redistribute working products to those who need them. If products are easy and legal to repair, end users can use the product for as long as possible.

All of these reduce waste and maximize the usage of every scrap of material.
It’s important to remember that lasting change doesn’t happen overnight. Every effort we can make to make it more circular will make an impact. Designers and professionals from all backgrounds must work together to reform our economy in bits and pieces to create a sustainable economy for countless generations.

What is a Circular Design?

Like many complex, large-scale solutions, a circular economy requires designers. Circular designs support a more circular economy with durable, reusable, repairable, and recyclable products. 

To create a circular product, designers should consider a product's entire lifecycle, from raw material to distribution, use, disposal, and reuse. This way, designers can create a positive environmental and social impact at every stage.

Designers should consider using organic, renewable materials in physical products. We can also help design means of reusing or recycling material into new products. 

Even digital products can help create a circular economy. Designers can push to support older devices and combat forced obsolescence, which causes waste. 

Energy-efficient software can reduce energy usage in a variety of digital devices. The apps we choose to design can promote other types of reuse, like online thrift stores, and educate people about recycling. Even intangible products can be greener and help design a better world.

The Principles of Circular Design

The circular economy requires circular design. The three principles of circular design are:

  1. Eliminate waste and pollution, including toxic substances that harm the soil and water and reduce emissions. Design plays a key role here. Almost every product generates waste, so we need to redesign everything.

  2. Circulate products and materials at their highest value for as long as possible. For example, we can build machines to be long-lasting and easy to take apart and repair with reusable parts. These recyclable materials reduce the need for metal mines, which can harm our ecosystem.

  3. Regenerate natural systems by returning natural resources to the earth. For example, food waste can help regenerate farmlands.

Examples of Circular Design

Several companies have leveraged circular design practices to preserve resources and reduce waste. While not circular economies unto themselves, they contribute to a more circular system overall. Here are a few notable examples:

Kalundborg, Denmark, has established an industrial symbiosis network. These companies exchange waste and by-products, which can be valuable resources for other industries. For example, excess steam and hot water from a power plant are used by nearby factories to reduce energy consumption.

Copenhagen, Denmark, has adopted policy changes and infrastructure to promote a circular economy by recycling and reducing waste with organizational innovation and public-private innovation (PPI) partnerships.

Patagonia, a clothing manufacturer, encourages customers to repair and reuse their products with repair services and guides. This approach extends the life cycle of their products and reduces the need for new purchases.

Platforms like Lyft and Uber let people share vehicles for transportation, which reduces the need for cars. This approach reduces the overall demand for automotive manufacturing and parking lots. Airbnb has a similar approach to accommodations, which reduces the need to build hotels.

Interface, a carpet manufacturer, has implemented closed-loop recycling systems. They remove old carpets, separate the fibers, and use them as raw materials for new carpet production. This process reduces material demand and keeps resources in circulation.

These examples highlight different circular economy aspects and demonstrate innovative approaches across various industries and sectors.

Designers and professionals from all backgrounds must work together to reform our economy in bits and pieces. Only then can we have a fair and sustainable economy for countless generations.

Learn More about Circular Economies

For more on circular economies, take our course: Design For a Better World with Don Norman.

For more about sustainable design, take our course: Design for the 21st Century course with Don Norman.

Norman, Donald A. Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered. Cambridge, MA, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

For the visual explanation of the circular economy butterfly diagram, see The butterfly diagram: visualizing the circular economy.

For more examples of circular design, see the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy examples and case studies.

See how the Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains the need for a circular economy in Towards a circular economy: Business rationale for an accelerated transition.

The World Economic Forum on plastics in a circular economy: Plastics, the Circular Economy and Global Trade

Take a look at the European Commission’s Circular economy action plan.

See more about Patagonia’s worn wear program, which repairs and reuses clothing.

Read about The Kalundborg Symbiosis program: https://www.symbiosis.dk/en/Kalundborg Symbiosis.

See how Interface is recycling fiber to create new carpets with their recycling program. 

Study Copenhagen’s approach to a circular economy: Circular Copenhagen.

Literature on a Circular Economy

Here’s the entire UX literature on a Circular Economy by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about a Circular Economy

Take a deep dive into Circular Economy with our course Design for a Better World with Don Norman .

“Because everyone designs, we are all designers, so it is up to all of us to change the world. However, those of us who are professional designers have an even greater responsibility, for professional designers have the training and the knowledge to have a major impact on the lives of people and therefore on the earth.”

— Don Norman, Design for a Better World

Our world is full of complex socio-technical problems:

  • Unsustainable and wasteful practices that cause extreme climate changes such as floods and droughts.

  • Wars that worsen hunger and poverty.

  • Pandemics that disrupt entire economies and cripple healthcare.

  • Widespread misinformation that undermines education.

All these problems are massive and interconnected. They seem daunting, but as you'll see in this course, we can overcome them.

Design for a Better World with Don Norman is taught by cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Don Norman. Widely regarded as the father (and even the grandfather) of user experience, he is the former VP of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Don Norman has constantly advocated the role of design. His book “The Design of Everyday Things” is a masterful introduction to the importance of design in everyday objects. Over the years, his conviction in the larger role of design and designers to solve complex socio-technical problems has only increased.

This course is based on his latest book “Design for a Better World,” released in March 2023. Don Norman urges designers to think about the whole of humanity, not just individual people or small groups.

In lesson 1, you'll learn about the importance of meaningful measurements. Everything around us is artificial, and so are the metrics we use. Don Norman challenges traditional numerical metrics since they do not capture the complexity of human life and the environment. He advocates for alternative measurements alongside traditional ones to truly understand the complete picture.

In lesson 2, you'll learn about and explore multiple examples of sustainability and circular design in practice. In lesson 3, you'll dive into humanity-centered design and learn how to apply incremental modular design to large and complex socio-technical problems.

In lesson 4, you'll discover how designers can facilitate behavior-change, which is crucial to address the world's most significant issues. Finally, in the last lesson, you'll learn how designers can contribute to designing a better world on a practical level and the role of artificial intelligence in the future of design.

Throughout the course, you'll get practical tips to apply in real-life projects. In the "Build Your Case Study" project, you'll step into the field and seek examples of organizations and people who already practice the philosophy and methods you’ll learn in this course.

You'll get step-by-step guidelines to help you identify which organizations and projects genuinely change the world and which are superficial. Most importantly, you'll understand what gaps currently exist and will be able to recommend better ways to implement projects. You will build on your case study in each lesson, so once you have completed the course, you will have an in-depth piece for your portfolio.

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