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Sustainability Talks

Industrial Designers Society of America Focuses on Circular Business

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The Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) hosted the second webinar in its “Close That Loop!” series. This event focused on “Circular Business Opportunities and Navigating the Risks of Zero Carbon,” which explored how designers and companies can rethink products and services in productive ways, as well as the challenges and opportunities of carbon offsets. The panelists were Joel Makower, Chairman and Executive Editor of GreenBiz Group, Inc., and Peter Minor, Innovation Lead at Carbon180, in conversation with Shruti Parikh, Associate Director at Takeda Pharmaceuticals. 

Makower started the conversation by offering his definition of circularity: “keeping molecules in play.” He emphasized that circular business is about a lot more than just recycling, which is how many people think of it.

Makower then discussed five key elements, starting with the circular supply chain, which takes “things that didn’t have value and turns them into value” (for instance, clean power, and biobased or renewable materials); as an example, he noted how Adidas turns recycled plastics into garments. He then discussed product life extension (for instance, utilizing repair or upgrade) and resource recovery, which creates energy from waste. The final two elements were product-as-service, where a customer has access, not ownership (as in Michelin’s pay-per-kilometer fleet program) and product utilization, which optimizes resource efficiency (an example is Caterpillar’s Yard Club that allows for the sharing of construction equipment).

Makower then encouraged designers to “rethink everything.” He gave the example of an office-furniture company and suggested that, rather than selling stuff to clients, what if the company offered a subscription service for office furniture? Traditionally, a customer would have to “deal with” all the furniture that it purchased and no longer liked or had use for, with cast-off furniture often being tossed or put in storage. But, if the furniture had been obtained through a subscription service, the supplier would own the furniture and could put cast-offs to better use. This type of service can adapt as a client grows, shrinks, or their needs or interests change. And, rather than a simple buyer-seller transactional relationship, the subscription model could lead to a long-term, multi-decade relationship.

Makower encouraged the audience to think about the many angles through which useful “rethinking” can occur: product design, materials selection, materials sourcing, manufacturing process, product delivery, customer relationship, asset ownership, service and warranty, reverse logistics, parts/material recovery, materials reuse, energy recovery, chemicals extraction, remanufacturing, and secondary markets. He emphasized that, “You’re designing into a system.” The key question, he stated, is: “How do you envision the system?” By answering this question with an eye toward circularity, new kinds of value chains,” or maybe they are now value loops,” can be created.

He emphasized that it’s not necessarily about “how much material you use”—because there’s nothing wrong with a lot of materials “if they continue to be in play throughout multiple life cycles.” What we’re talking about, rather, is a “shift in thinking.” If we’re not optimizing the system, “we’re not really being circular—we’re being more efficient or upcycling, which is great. But you see a lot of “circular-washing.’ If something is recyclable, it’s called ‘circular,’ and that’s just not true. So there’s a lot of overuse of this and people taking something they’ve been doing for a long time and now calling it ‘circular.’” So, “how do we really understand the principles behind circular thinking and then make sure we’re optimizing the system?”

Makower further noted that business model innovation could promote regenerative and restorative actions, as well as resilience. Additionally, it can be a boon for job creation and economic development. He noted that he was encouraged by the growth in the circular-business movement over a relatively short time. “It’s early days with a long way to go, but it’s fascinating to see how big this has become in such a short amount of time.”

Minor’s presentation was about carbon removal, touching on both policy and innovation problems. He noted that this is a relatively new field and that there aren’t a lot of entrepreneurs who have both the understanding and skills to do carbon removal. His firm, Carbon 180, is helping to accelerate progress on this front.

Minor talked about designing for Net-Zero using carbon offsets but reminded the audience that the ultimate goal is that the net carbon we’re adding to the environment approaches zero “so things like offsetting isn’t required.” In the meantime, there are several sectors that are especially hard to decarbonize: materials like steel and cement, long-distance transportation, and heavy industry and chemicals. So, he noted, offsets can ideally: reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere; verifiably reduce amount of carbon that is being offset; and ensure the result is valid for a long enough duration to impact climate change.

But, Minor pointed out, today’s offset markets aren’t designed to optimize for quality. So, “if we want them to be an effective tool, we need to rethink our approach.” Minor then presented the audience with three scenarios: in the first, an offset-provider plans to implement improved forest management of 5,000 acres of forests and ensure that the trees are not cut down; in the second, the provider pays farmers to convert to regenerative agriculture practices on 5,000 acres of crops, leading to more carbon being stored in the soil; in the third, the provider manages to purchase a plot of trees scheduled to be cut down for pulp by a toilet-paper manufacturer.

Minor asked if these are high-quality offsets, or suspect offsets, and showcased three main criteria for evaluation: “additionality” evaluates whether an intervention causes a climate benefits above and beyond what would have happened in a no-intervention baseline scenario; “permanence” is the duration for which carbon can be stored in safe and stable manner; and “leakage” occurs when an offset project’s activities displace emissions to other locations, times, or forms (while the project itself may be effective, leakage to other sites can lead to net environmental benefits of zero). He emphasized that, “The actions we’re taking have to prevent carbon globally.”

Minor concluded that there are, in fact, “high-quality offsets out there, but there are a lot of people trying to take advantage of the market.” One potential solution is carbon removal, which itself provides Interesting design challenges such as: “how do we design our approach to carbon removal in a way that brings environmental justice to the forefront and in a way that makes people want to use it?”

Makower summed up the discussion in a powerful way by positing, “What does the world look like when waste is no longer an option? It’s an uplifting exercise, and I see that happening in small shops and the world’s biggest companies all over the world. What gives me optimism is the potential to grow this in ways we can’t even yet imagine. That’s where designers thrive.”

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