The “take, make, and throw” economy is producing shocking amounts of waste. However, a circular and sustainable electronics industry is on the horizon, inspired by the grassroots models of circularity in informal makers communities like Agbogbloshie. It all starts with designing waste and planned obsolescence out, and designing timelessness in.
There is no waste in nature — only humans produce waste. Our current approach to the lifecycle of a product is as unsustainable as it gets: we extract finite materials from the earth, manufacture short-lived products, and then discard them as ever-accumulating waste. Nature, instead, works in a circular way — nothing is wasted, everything is transformed. We can design our way out of waste and inefficiency, by implementing a circular economy inspired by nature. Circularity is all about turning the lifecycles of products into closed loops so that when a product reaches the end of its life, its materials can easily be used to create new products. Circular designs are often modular, repairable, timeless and made to last. This regenerative way of understanding “making” is underpinned by a transition to renewable energy and sustainable materials. Circularity gives us an exciting model to reimagine our whole economy for a better future — while creating prosperity and amazing products in the process.
Many of our electronic products are purposefully designed to be difficult or expensive to repair. In fact, companies use a strategy known as planned obsolescence to incentivise consumers to purchase brand new products as frequently as possible over repairing their devices or buying refurbished. Planned obsolescence means that, whether you like it or not, your device will become unrepairable, uninsurable, and incompatible with most new software after an artificially short timeframe. The right to repair is an answer to this. Right to repair laws would make it easier and cheaper for people to repair their devices, thus extending a product's lifespan and creating stronger economies around spare parts and repair services. Some proposals for the right to repair would even like to see “repair scores” shown on product labels so that consumers can make purchasing decisions that consider how easily repairable a device is. Connected to the right to repair is the concept of “modular design”, where components (e.g. a phone’s camera) can be swapped and upgraded on their own, without requiring buying a whole new device.
The sharing economy fights the notion that as individuals we should privately own every gadget and tool that we might ever need to use in our life. The urge to lead perfectly self-contained lives with garages stocked full of dusty stuff is an arbitrary ideal popularised by the 20th century suburban American lifestyle. Enter the sharing economy: a modern way to share the costs and burdens of the things we want, across a large community connected via digital platforms. Essentially, the sharing economy turns products to own into services to subscribe to or use on-demand, which can lead to great efficiencies and lower carbon footprints. A thriving sharing economy would mean that every community has a tool library where you can rent that power-drill you need to use once a year; that people would default to ride-sharing rather than owning a car; that someone's pre-loved dress can be someone else’s seasonal favourite. Green innovators like Too Good To Go or Library of Things show that there is a path forward for the sharing economy that is guided by principles of sustainability, fairness and social good.
Reimagining our economy to be circular can start with small steps that anyone can take. And, if you also happen to be a designer, engineer, entrepreneur or business consultant, circularity is calling for you!
Materials Scientist Mark Miodownik asks what we can learn from repair cultures around the world, looking at manufacturers who are designing in repairability, discovering the resources available to encourage and train the next generation of repairers.
If you like to learn more about circularity, then why not start from these free and fun mini-courses from Ellen MacArthur Foundation? They’re a great visual way to learn and touch on all sorts of topics, from food, fashion and design to cities, AI and business.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a charity committed to creating a circular economy — their website is the bible for circularity, full of educational resources, videos and e-books! We also recommend the WEF's lightweight e-book on the topic, which should equip you with a solid foundational knowledge of the principles of circularity.
When your company updates their electronics hardware (computers, monitors, etc.), they can donate the old ones to Close the Gap, who will refurbish and distribute them to social and educational projects in developing countries, avoiding unnecessary e-waste.
Introducing the right to repair is an important step in transitioning to a circular economy, as it would ensure that people are able to extend the life of their products with cheap and easily available repair options. There are movements all over the world you can support!
There’s still a lot of work left to do in the electronics industry to achieve widespread sustainability, but you can encourage the trend by choosing to buy from green leaders in the industry like Fairphone, Nimble, LSTN, House of Marley, Transpa.rent, Teracube, Prime Computer, SAWA and more. Fairphone also offer a recycling service for your old phones, so you can start supporting them in that simple way!
The principles of circular design can be used across different sectors. Why not attend the events put on at the Textiles Circularity Centre at the Royal College of Arts? They're thought-leaders in cutting-edge circular design and the insights you can learn at their events have applications beyond fashion too!
Library of Things, Fat Llama, and other similar platforms can help you participate in the sharing economy through 'libraries' of items you can easily borrow and use only when you need them; you can find anything from hedge trimmers to sewing machines. Next time you need to buy something, ask yourself whether you can rent it instead!
If you’re in the UK, the Circular Design Lab at University of the Arts London offers a range of courses in circularity, from one-day courses to PHD level programmes. They also have monthly public lectures which would help anyone in the creative industries understand how they can use their influence to improve circularity.
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