I’m fascinated by the ability of design to solve problems. At its core, the circular economy is a revolution in both intention and design. It’s s an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative and it aims to ‘design out’ waste. Waste simply does not exist—products are engineered and optimized for an extended initial lifespan before entering the cycle of disassembly and reuse. I was fortunate to get to talk about just this at a recent virtual panel put on by GreenBiz at their Circularity 20 Conference. I was joined by representatives from the apparel and DIY industries to explore the sustainability impact of product design that emphasizes repairability and resilience.
Unfortunately, designing for extended life and repairability has not always been at the forefront of product concepting, for several reasons. It’s often more expensive and can take more time upfront in the design process. It’s also not compatible with a business model of planned obsolescence — which has contributed heavily to today’s throwaway culture that prefers replacing over repairing. However, designing for product durability and an ability to be easily repaired is a key component of the circular economy because it keeps a product out of any potential waste loop for as long as possible.
“The design mind needs to focus not on generating difference and change seasonally but rather generating the opportunity for the redeployment of a first-generation object to new second-generation material.”
— Paul Dillinger, VP, Head of Global Product Innovation, Levi Strauss & Co.
In addition to the physical structure of a product, however, designing for circularity also includes specifying the right materials. Using recycled or repurposed materials – preferably sourced from a closed loop — is one tactic. But if those resources are made from a composite mix, it creates issues at the end of the new product’s life cycle, because mixed materials can be very difficult to separate for reuse. To be truly sustainable, materials need to be easy to break down for proper repurposing. Again, this can add expense during the initial product’s creation. In some cases, it can also limit consumer choices; for example, the fibers of denim jeans that include spandex for stretch cannot be teased apart.
Right now, not very many virgin materials are even getting that chance for a second use. According to McKinsey, six out of every 10 garments purchased are incinerated or buried within the first year after production. When it comes to e-waste, the statistics are equally disheartening. Even though it’s one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world, less than 20 percent of electronics are responsibly recycled today.
“Dell’s designers are the only designers who go to the recyclers every year and take apart their own products.”
— Kyle Wiens, CEO, iFixit
At Dell Technologies, we are leading the way in reducing and recycling e-waste. One of our key principles regarding the circular economy is Transformation – changing the way we design and deliver products and services to align with responsible sustainability. Our design standard is simple: no computer should go to waste. This commitment begins with a systems-level view of all of our product lifecycles. Our designs emphasize ease of repair and recyclability from the start — with very successful results. In fact, the Dell Technologies Inspiron laptop received the top score of 10 from iFixit for the way its design supports easy repair and upgrades. Other exciting initiatives we’re working on involve the use of AI and ML to design products with self-healing technologies that can actually reconstitute and repair themselves to avoid downtime.
“It is critically important to incorporate circular principles in the design phase. We are always seeking ways to make our products easier to repair and disassemble — and that starts with design.”
— John Pflueger, Principal Environmental Strategist, Dell Technologies
Dell also offers PC as a Service (PCaas) by combining hardware, software and lifecycle session in exchange for monthly fees. Consumers who subscribe receive the latest technology every 36 months yet support sustainability. The program’s easy takeback allows us to easily refurbish entire PCs for resale or dissemble them to reclaim components for upcycling or recycling — a process made easier with thoughtful design.
That thoughtful design includes looking for ways to make it easy for the materials we use to be recycled. For example, we will take the plastics recovered through our takeback programs and if they cannot be repurposed, we work with our partners to shred, melt and reblend them. We then use this recycled plastic at a 35 percent blend rate to make new parts. Currently, these “closed-loop” plastics feed parts into more than 125 different Dell products.
More companies are beginning to adopt circular design initiatives as consumer opinions change with regards to what sacrifices they are willing to make for the sake of environmental responsibility, such as a higher price or a particular style. Also — and this is the key because the bottom line is always a driver — it’s becoming easier and more affordable to support the circular economy as technology improves.
That technology improvement includes advances in AI and ML. Some exciting initiatives we’re working on involve the use of AI and ML to design products with self-healing technologies that can actually reconstitute and repair themselves to avoid downtime. And there will come a day, sooner than you might think, where AI will be able to manage a computing “subscription” and identify exactly what you need, based on how you use it. There are many roads to circularity, and at Dell Technologies, we’re exploring as many as possible to achieve our goal of a more sustainable future.