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Perfect Sustainable Product Design Needs to Start with a Circle

Image credit: Tech Moran

Electronic waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, and according to a United Nations report, it’s projected that 50 million tons of e-waste will be accumulated by 2018. There are many reasons for such a staggering amount of waste — a lot of it starts with the fact that products and devices are replaced by upgraded versions within a few years of owning them and, with around 50 percent of consumers not sure what to do with them once they are finished with them, many end up in landfills and oceans. Another reality is that many tech products live out the rest of their days unused. And with around 30 percent of consumers with tech products lying around the house, compared to only 15 percent of e-waste being recycled globally, today’s reality is that more products are manufactured than recycled. So, what can be done about the issue and how do we ensure that we do not reach the projected 50, 60 or even 100 million tons of e-waste?

Well, today, scientists, businesses and thought leaders are building upon the circular economy foundations of the ‘90s, offering advice and guidance with the aim of tackling the current e-waste problem, which is perpetually supported by conventional ‘make, use, dispose’ manufacturing models. The conclusion? We have to start producing devices with their entire lifetime in mind — making them easier to recycle, reuse and repair. While redesigning products and reimagining business models is no easy task, by taking on expert advice and working with corporates, foundations, governments and consumers, a circular economy by design can be a reality. So, let’s soak up the guidance, work together, learn from each other, and start thinking circular!

There are many resources and organizations out there for companies to help them on the way:

  • Scholars and researchers are publishing works to help businesses along their circular journey. Last year, the University of Cambridge published Product design and business model strategies for a circular economy, which developed a framework to help guide designers and business strategists in the move from a linear to a circular economy. Similarly, an Oxford University-published case study, co-authored by Dell, summarised our best-practice advice for businesses looking to on-board the circular design train. Another source of advice comes from global design company IDEO and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the first design thinking guide for the circular economy, launched earlier this year at the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos. The guide takes the foundations of circular economy and prompts manufacturers to reimagine their business models with new products and technologies. It details 24 methods, along with video interviews with designers, worksheets, case studies and links to helpful technical tools.
  • Organisations such as the European Union. Its European Environment Agency recently published a report exploring the circular economy from a product perspective, discussing how production and consumption trends can help or hinder more circular material use. It encourages manufacturers to think about how emerging innovation such as modular mobile phones or 3D printing of spare parts fit into a circular economy by design.
  • And events like the first-ever World Circular Economy Forum, which took place in Helsinki, Finland and brought together over 1,500 key people from more than 100 countries to share ideas on how businesses can gain a competitive advantage, create more value, and generate new growth and jobs in societies around the world by adopting a circular economy. At the forum, I also shared Dell’s experience with circular design and how we champion modular design for easy repair and recyclability. As expected, at the end of the event one of the key takeaways was the need to produce more durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable products, in line with designing products with their ‘end in sight.’

This all shows that scholars, agencies and leaders alike agree that the traditional, linear way of production is harmful. All that is left is for businesses to benefit from this work and make circular product design a reality.

At Dell, we aim to achieve positive impacts both for our customers and the planet, putting a circular way of thinking front and center in our business. We design our products for longevity, with parts created to be upgraded and prolong the life of the device — if not for the person using it today, then for the next person who might get a chance to reuse the device. We also think about recyclability and the product’s entire lifecycle so that when it finally does reach the end of its life, it’s easy to disassemble and process. And we value the collaboration with our Asset Resale and Recycling partners to determine what kinds of design features will make the product recycling easy. This process involves research on the type of materials used, how they are put together and what type of labels will come with the products. For example, the exterior of our XPS 13 Ultrabook uses polymer-reinforced carbon fibers, making the product lightweight as well as cool to the touch. But that material also had to conform to EPEAT’s criteria for recyclability, ensuring our recycling partners could return the material to usefulness.

While we are proud of our efforts, we absolutely cannot do this on our own. As a member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 (CE100), we share learnings from our initiatives with like-minded business leaders and participate in forums such as the World Circular Economy Forum. Change cannot happen overnight, that much is true. But with the advice and materials out there for the taking and with a shared responsibility for our only planet, we must bend today’s linear economy. One redesigned device at a time, one conversation at a time — let’s bring everybody round to a new way of producing.


Louise’s work is driven by a passion to build a better world through business. In Dell she is working closely with colleagues, customers and partners to share and develop Dell’s corporate sustainability program and drive sustainability in business development.

Through her… [Read more about Louise Koch]