Designing for the Circular Economy

Share this Article

Products have been designed as if resources are unlimited. The take, bake, make, waste approach has valuable materials — erroneously called waste — landfilled. We need to design products so that these resources loop back into a material cycle. This closed-loop approach recognizes natural limits and values materials through the end of their first product life and designs products for a circular economy.

Principles of a Circular Economy

The circular economy has successfully provided an umbrella term for our urgent need to transition to a more sustainable society. By incorporating the design strategies of cradle to cradle, natural capitalism, biomimicry, and other innovative whole systems thinking approaches, the circular economy aims to create closed-loop cycles of materials that continuously recapture the embodied energy and resources for a return to future products.

“We start designing for reuse and remanufacturability.”  — Barent Roth

Design Away Waste

As much as it helps to reduce waste and the end of the materials stream, it is more important to design out waste upstream at the beginning of the object’s very inception. We should strive to “eliminate the concept of waste,” according to William McDonough, co-author with Michael Braungart of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

“If we design everything so that all of the components can be recycled […] then we don’t have waste.”  — Barent Roth

Cradle to Cradle design advocates for designing all products so that they can separated into either Biological Cycles for compost into soil or Technical Cycles for true recycling back into products.

Product-Service Systems

Selling the service the object provides, rather than the object itself, successfully incentivizes manufacturers to design objects that are longer lasting, repairable, upgradable, and designed for disassembly. Shifting the system in this way increases customer relationships and creates an established path for the component materials to return back to the manufacturer for easy refurbishment and reassembly.

“Product-service systems are a big part of the circular economy.”  — Barent Roth


Learning from nature’s 3.8 billion years of evolution has proved to be valuable design inspiration. In nature there is no waste. As John Todd states, in nature, “waste equals food.” One organism’s waste is always food for other organisms. We need to design our industries with this same system condition.

Renewable Energy

Greening our electrical grid with renewable forms of energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, or tidal power, as quickly as we can, will be essential in our efforts to escape the catastrophic effects of climate change. Only renewable forms of energy where we can safely account for all the waste streams and greenhouse gas emissions fit within a circular economy approach.

“Externalities” of our current system, such as increase in carbon emissions, toxic waste, pollution of ecosystems, and contamination of soils are now instead included, reduced, and progressively eliminated in a circular economy transition.

Circular Economy Case Studies

Innovative companies began employing circular economy strategies long before the term became widely used. They include existing, proven solutions from large companies like Caterpillar and strategies from developing, contemporary, experimental businesses like Fairphone and Net-Works.

“Why is it important? The survival of the species, put simply.” — Barent Roth

Barent Roth is a designer and educator dedicated to sustainable products, practices, and services. He is the co-founder of the award winning sustainable to restorative design firm, grow-design. He is also the creator of the LA Green Drinks network and former Executive Director of Sustainable Works. He now teaches courses on sustainable design at Parsons, The New School, while designing sustainable solutions. Barent recently founded Testing Our Waters, empowering citizen scientists to track and prevent marine pollution.