The European Commission (2020) has stated that product design should be increasingly taken into account in circular economy. Product design can:
- improve product durability, reusability, upgradability and repairability, address the presence of hazardous chemicals in products and increase their energy and resource efficiency;
- increase recycled content in products, while ensuring their performance and safety;
- enable remanufacturing and high-quality recycling;
- reduce carbon and environmental footprints;
- restrict single-use and counter premature obsolescence;
- introduce a ban on the destruction of unsold durable goods;
- incentivise product-as-a-service or other models where producers keep the ownership of the product or the responsibility for its performance throughout the life cycle of the product;
- mobilise the potential of digitalisation of product information, including solutions such as digital passports, tagging and watermarks;
- Reward products based on their different sustainability performance, including by linking high performance levels to incentives.
Products must be designed to be durable, maintainable and repairable
In design processes that follow the principles of circular economy, it is essential to slow down, close and reduce the material flows of products and materials.
At the product and component level, this means that they should be designed to last as long as possible, i.e. to be both physically and emotionally sustainable. In addition, products should be easy to maintain and upgrade. If the product is broken, it must also be designed to be easy to repair, refurbish or remanufacture for the same or other use.
At the material level, this means that when the product can no longer be utilised even after it has been repaired or remanufactured, it must be possible to recycle its materials as easily as possible.
In terms of recycling, complex material mixtures or product solutions that are difficult to separate should be avoided. If this is not possible, the materials should be designed in such a way that the compounds can be recycled as such, thus avoiding the technically more difficult recycling at the elemental level.
Examples of materials and products
Highlights from key factors in product design:
It is important to design for repairability and longevity with regard to the technical and emotional durability of materials and products. Mixing different materials makes recycling more difficult.
Use and availability of critical materials, possibility to update software, ease of recycling, longevity in both components and appearance. Mixing different materials makes recycling more difficult.
Particularly short-lived packaging or single-use products are a problem. The reusability of packaging should be taken into account in the design and complex material compounds should be avoided. Restricting the use of harmful substances and preventing their accumulation in recycling. The possibility of increasing the use of recycled plastics should also be taken into account in the design.
Metal alloys or their components are particularly a problem; otherwise metals are an easy material to recycle and highly durable. Availability of critical materials. Specific problems such as the use of lead, which, unfortunately, facilitates recycling despite its toxicity.
Proposal for a new Ecodesign Directive
"Economic growth can be decoupled from the use of natural resources and environmental pollution if products are made to be less energy consuming and used more efficiently and longer, if recycled materials are used instead of primary raw materials, and if the best circular economy models become more common.”