Column Make it circular or leave it as is

At Hogwarts School of Wizardry, they have a good understanding of circularity. The magic spell ‘Reparo’ destroys everything in the world of Harry Potter.

Come when your three-month-old toaster suddenly stops working and you try in vain to open it to see what’s going on. Not a single screw to be seen, because the device is made of molded plastic and hermetically sealed, just like your phone, cheap electric toothbrush and printer. All virtually impossible to repair, all non-circular.

What we often take for granted as a daily hassle is actually a major obstacle to limiting our footprint on the earth.

Items that cannot be reused or repaired are an unacceptable waste of energy and raw materials.

Taken together, this is a huge strain on our ecosystem. No less than 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined by decisions that take place during the design phase. For a designer, this is a big responsibility. And that’s where something often goes completely wrong.

Fully detachable smartphone

Our addictive throw-away culture needs to be fought much harder. And the designer, with the consumer and regulatory authorities at his side, has a key to push manufacturers towards a circular society. For the Dutch designer Bas van Abel, the annoyance of not being able to open his own expensive phone was the reason to develop a new smartphone: the Fairphone, which can be completely disassembled.

For successful fashion designer Borre Akkersdijk, frustration with the heavily polluting clothing industry – responsible for 10 percent of global CO2 emissions – was even reason to stop his successful annual ByBorre collection altogether. He now focuses almost exclusively on making responsible yarn and fabric.

Design it circular, or just don’t make it because the supply is already too big, as Akkersdijk decided. Perhaps he also knows that 14 million kilos of textiles are thrown away every year in Amsterdam alone. There is an urgent need for an answer to the quickly broken printer that was cheaper than the ink cartridges that go into it, a rickety toaster for 17 euros on Amazon.com or desirable smartphones that are replaced after a single move.

Temptingly cheap

To achieve the climate goals – the Netherlands wants a fully circular economy by 2050 – designers, consumers and government must work together and force manufacturers to change.

Not the temptingly cheap end product is paramount, but a responsible manufacturing process and repairability. Ecological footprint over price, reusability over aesthetics.

Consumers must be helped in this circular transition, but they must also do something themselves: refuse to buy a product that does not contain screws. Don’t scrape the bottom of the market, but look for things that are cheaper in the long run and less stressful because parts can be reused.

In addition, the government must actually help consumers make choices. Why isn’t there still a footprint label on every consumer product that shows the environmental impact, such as the already mandatory energy label for a home? The government can and must enforce this on such an influential industry.

The transition to circular is not easy, old production systems and revenue models are hard. You can’t topple an entire production chain on your own, but designers like Van Abel and Akkersdijk ensure that other manufacturers also – must – get started. It is very easy as a designer to refuse to design things that cannot be opened. Literally make it so everyone can take their broken toaster to the repair shop.

Richard van der Laken is a designer and founder of the platform What Design Can Do. With the ‘Make It Circular Challenge’ he calls for refreshing circular ideas.

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