Nov—22

What The NZ Circular Summit Means For The Future Of Sustainable Design

Circular Economy Summit: Do good versus less evil

This post is part of a series where our co-founder Steven Korner will be talking about a range of topics – from design, to what it’s like to engineer a product in the sustainability space.

NZ Circular Economy Summit

The circular economy is a concept that sees resources recovered and recycled into new products. This is important as the current practice is not viable long-term where often raw materials are being used and then disposed of referred to as ‘take-make-dispose.’

The circular economy is central to the Method philosophy; our bins assist in effective source separation of waste for recycling. Further, we hope to close the loop on our bins and see their life regenerated.

This concept is becoming more prevalent, and New Zealand held their first Circular Economy summit (CEsummit) in August 2018. The key speaker was Michael Braungart, a chemist from Hamburg Germany who pioneered work on the ‘cradle to cradle’ concept and founded the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA).

Cradle to Cradle

Cradle to cradle advances on the circular economy asserting that it only closes a linear paradigm rather than being truly circular. It is a purist view of a circular economy, with a focus on doing good, not just less bad. Braungart argues that recycling and sustainability are no longer productive, and that to effect a meaningful resolution we need to focus on designing products that help the environment rather than merely reducing the impact.

Braungart's paradigm requires a complete redesign of the production and recycling industries.

To achieve this products should be designed with materials that are biodegradable while returning nutrients to the soil. These products would then have a positive impact on the environment as the earth's soil has severely degraded from years of poor practice. In turn, this would motivate people to behave sustainably to improve their quality of life rather than seeing it as an ethical issue.

This strikes a chord with me, the idea that design can improve the environment, not just do less bad. This creates a challenge for us as designers and the industrial sector as a whole to rethink the way we produce and use materials.

Bio + Technical Cradle to Cradle Cycles

Downcycling

The success of a genuinely circular economy should see resources maintain their integrity and be remanufactured into items of the same or better quality. Currently, it is quite common for the quality of the resources to be reduced when recycled due to degradation or the contamination of other materials, known as downcycling - these resources must then be used for products of lower quality.


Downcycling is particularly concerning as this means that we are not closing the loop on products effectively. By the degradation of resources, we are unable to recycle them consistently and will need to add in raw materials to account for the reduction in quality.

For example, when paper is recycled it is made into mulch which shortens the fibres. This means that it has a finite number of times it can be recycled before natural resources need to be introduced to make high-grade paper. Don’t get me wrong this is still preferable to 100% raw materials used but this only reduces the impact, not eliminates it.

The resolution to this and similar problems is design. If we are to create meaningful change we have to reimagine industrial processes from the very start. McDonough and Braugnaut’s book ‘cradle to cradle’ is printed on synthetic ‘paper’ that is waterproof and more durable than traditional paper. The product is a prototype of a paper substitute that can be recovered and regenerated into paper indefinitely.

If products are able to be recovered and reprocessed by businesses without the need for raw materials this will reduce the barriers for widespread adoption. Many organisations do not reassess or reimagine their materials due to the higher cost of many recycled materials. However, if materials are captured in an infinite loop the cost will come down. Not to mention the increasing number of environmentally sensitive consumers an innovation of this kind will make their product a leader in its field.

Upcycling Single Use plastic Products

Plastic has become integral to modern life, and we are producing tonnes of plastic a day that is more often than not ending up in landfill, the environment or being downcycled. Particularly with single-use plastic packaging we need to recover the materials and use them for the same purpose or up-cycling.

A great example of this in New Zealand is Flight Plastics, who are recycling polyethylene terephthalate (PET ) the most common form of plastic used for food packaging. The importance of what Flight is doing is maximised by onshore production and maintaining the integrity of the resources. They are producing RPET that can be used in manufacturing the same way as the raw material, meeting food safety standards and maintaining their durability. The result is a product that can be recycled time and time again for the same purpose eliminating the need for raw materials. Read more about what Flight Plastics are doing here - https://methodrecycling.com/nz/journal/flight-plastics-recycling.

Central to the future of effective resource regeneration is the collection of clean products and the development of systems that maintain their integrity. Braungart believes that the future of cradle to cradle in the industrial sector focuses on organisations having lifetime ownership of its products. This would see products returned to the manufacturer once they are no longer fit for use to be regenerated into similar products.

The Challenge as Designers

The future of design is going further than sustainability practices but instead developing products that are productive not just minimising damage. This is a complete overhaul of how we do things, so the challenge for us as product designers is to think of the entire cycle. Ensure we are choosing and using materials in a way that are kept at the highest energy form.

Cradle to cradle begins with the designer, and we can pave to way to radically restructure how we conduct business.

"The need for true innovation has never been more profound then now. We are capable of creating high-quality circular alternatives which are beneficial for humans and nature. If the future can be positive, why choose differently?" - Michael Braungart

Co-founder Steven Korner

Profile: Steven Korner

Steven Korner graduated from the University of Canterbury with first class honours in Mechanical Engineering.

After leading the neonatal care product design team at Fisher and Paykel, and inspired by buying Total Bins, he and his wife India decided to create their own company and their own product.

Steven took an analytical approach with Method – spending weeks researching, prototyping, and gaining customer insights to decipher what could really make a difference in the waste market.

As co-founder and CEO, he has spearheaded Method’s innovative product research, development and design, and is the creator of Method’s award-winning 60L Office Recycling Bin.