Nine ways design can forge a circular economy in cities

Ecodesign and the circular economy are interconnected concepts that share the common objective of addressing environmental challenges and promoting sustainable practices. While they share the same goals, they operate at distinct phases within a product’s lifecycle, resulting in a comprehensive approach to sustainable development.


What is Ecodesign?

Ecodesign, also known as sustainable design or environmentally conscious design, involves the integration of environmental considerations into the product design process. The primary aim is to minimize the environmental footprint of products across their entire lifecycle, spanning from raw material extraction to end-of-life disposal. Ecodesign focuses on product designs to mitigate negative environmental impacts, achieved by optimizing resource efficiency, energy consumption, emissions reduction, waste generation, and the utilization of eco-friendly materials. Ecodesign focuses on optimizing product design to mitigate negative environmental impacts, often achieved by enhancing efficiency, durability, repairability, and recyclability.


Aiming for a Circular Economy

The circular economy operates as a comprehensive economic and systemic concept, aiming to minimize resource consumption and waste generation. It centers on principles such as eliminating waste and pollution, prolonging product and material utilization, and rejuvenating natural systems. 

The core vision of a circular economy is to establish a closed-loop system where products, components, and materials are continually reused, refurbished, remanufactured, and recycled. This not only reduces environmental impacts but also cultivates economic prospects by generating new markets for circular activities, such as repair services, remanufacturing, and material reclamation.

Ecodesign can equip us with practical tools and methodologies to achieve the broader systemic aspirations of the circular economy. By embedding ecodesign principles into product development, businesses – and the broader industries – can play a significant role in forging a sustainable and circular economy.


Nine Cities Empowering Circular Transformation through Ecodesign and Integrated Strategies

The synergy between effective policy tools and practical technical tools plays a pivotal role in the effectiveness of ecodesign and circular economy strategies. This combination empowers governments to foster an environment conducive to the adoption of sustainable practices by businesses, industries, and consumers alike, propelling the transformation towards a more harmonious and circular approach.

These nine cities have utilized effective combinations of policy and technical tools to power the circular economy.


1. Vancouver, Canada: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Policy tool: Mandatory environmental labeling standards that require disclosure of LCA information on product labels.

Technical tool: Development of standardized LCA methodologies and databases to ensure consistency and comparability of assessments. For example, Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company, assessed the LCA of their fleece jackets, discovering the environmental impact of each stage. This led to improved material sourcing and recycling programs.

City example: Vancouver used Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to evaluate the environmental impact of construction materials. The study compared materials like concrete, steel, wood, and recycled materials, considering their entire life cycles. This informed decision-making for sustainable choices and lowered the city’s carbon footprint. 


2. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Design for Disassembly and Recycling

Policy tool: EPR regulations mandating manufacturers to design products for ease of disassembly and recycling, and establishing take-back programs.

Technical tool: Guidelines and design principles for creating products with detachable parts and clear assembly instructions. For example, Fairphone, a smartphone manufacturer, designs phones with modular components, enabling users to replace individual parts and extend the device’s lifespan.

City example: Amsterdam’s Circular Building Program focuses on sustainable construction. In the “Circl” pavilion, modular design principles were employed, allowing for easy disassembly and reassembly of building components for future projects. 


3. San Francisco, USA: Material Selection and Eco-friendly Materials

Policy tool: Green procurement policies that prioritize products made from environmentally friendly materials.

Technical tool: Development of eco-labeling schemes to certify products using sustainable materials and manufacturing processes. For example, Adidas, the sportswear giant, has introduced a line of shoes made from recycled ocean plastics. By partnering with environmental organizations, they collect plastic waste from oceans and shorelines, transforming it into high-performance sportswear. This innovative approach not only cleans up the oceans but also demonstrates the potential of recycled materials in manufacturing.

City example: San Francisco, California, implemented a citywide ordinance banning the sale of plastic water bottles on city-owned property, promoting the use of reusable containers and reducing plastic waste. 


4. Berlin, Germany: Design for Durability and Repairability

Policy tool: Right to Repair legislation requiring manufacturers to provide repair manuals, spare parts, and diagnostic tools.

Technical tool: Design guidelines for creating products with modular components, standardized connectors, and accessible repair points. For example, the iFixit movement provides free repair guides for electronics, encouraging users to fix devices and reduce electronic waste.

City example: The city of Berlin, Germany, supports a network of community repair cafes where citizens can bring broken items, such as electronics and furniture, for repair by volunteers. This initiative promotes repair and extends product lifecycles. 


5. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Modularity and Standardization

Policy tool: Incentives for industries to adopt modular design through tax credits or grants.

Technical tool: Industry collaboration to develop common modular design standards and compatibility guidelines. For example, LEGO’s classic brick design is standardized, allowing for compatibility across sets and generations, promoting reuse.

City example: The “Belo Horizonte Sustainable City” project in Brazil focuses on creating modular, flexible buildings to accommodate changing needs. The project aims to minimize waste during construction and enable adaptive reuse. 


6. Singapore: Product as a Service (PaaS)

Policy tool: Tax incentives or subsidies for companies offering product leasing or subscription models.

Technical tool: Development of digital platforms to facilitate product access and tracking in service-based models. For example, Flexe operates as an Airbnb-inspired platform for warehouses, seamlessly linking enterprises possessing surplus storage capacity with those seeking it. This approach optimizes warehouse utilization and delivers adaptable storage solutions to businesses..

City example: Singapore is leading in shared kitchen innovation by integrating the Product as a Service (PaaS) model. Smart appliances equipped with sensors gather usage data, energy patterns, and maintenance needs, enabling remote monitoring and control. This PaaS approach provides subscription-based access to equipment, coupled with IoT-enabled maintenance and energy tracking. This initiative boosts resource efficiency, aids startups, and promotes sustainability.


7. Seoul, Republic of Korea: Reverse Logistics and Take-back Programs

Policy tool: EPR laws requiring manufacturers to take back and properly manage end-of-life products.

 Technical tool: Implementation of efficient reverse logistics systems for collection, refurbishment, and recycling. For example, Apple’s recycling program collects old devices, disassembles them for materials, and offers trade-ins for credit toward new products.

City example: Seoul’s Food Waste Recycling program employs sophisticated technological solutions for organic waste management. Smart collection bins equipped with sensors monitor the fill level of food waste bins, optimizing collection routes for waste trucks. Advanced anaerobic digestion facilities utilize microbial activity to break down food waste into biogas and compost. These technologies ensure efficient decomposition and energy recovery from food waste, contributing to a circular waste management system.


8. Oslo, Norway: Collaboration and Stakeholder Engagement

Policy tool: Government-supported circular economy networks and forums to facilitate knowledge sharing.

Technical tool: Digital platforms for sharing best practices, case studies, and research findings among stakeholders. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative brings together fashion brands to collectively work towards circular fashion systems.

City example: In Norway, Circular Oslo serves as a digital platform connecting stakeholders across industries. The platform facilitates the sharing of best practices, resources, and data, promoting collaboration and accelerating the adoption of circular economy practices within the city. 


9. Global: Circular Design Guidelines and Principles

Policy Tool: Establishment of government-led circular design initiatives with funding for research and development.

Technical Tool: Creation of comprehensive circular design handbooks outlining design strategies, case studies, and implementation steps. For example, Procter & Gamble developed the “Tide Eco-Box” detergent, using less plastic and compact design, reducing packaging waste.

Example: The Circular City Actions Framework provides urban changemakers with five complementary strategies they can use to start working towards a more circular system. The framework is action-based to provide users with concrete strategic directions and showcase the desired outcomes of each strategy. 


Cities leading the way

Combining policy tools with practical technical tools enhances the effectiveness of ecodesign and circular economy strategies, encouraging businesses, industries, and governments to collectively work towards a more sustainable and circular future. These case studies serve as vibrant illustrations of cities leveraging their inventiveness to wield a dual arsenal of policy and technical instruments. 

Through these concerted efforts, these cities are orchestrating a remarkable shift in urban landscapes, propelling them towards trajectories that are not just sustainable, but also characterized by prosperity, innovation, and resilience. 


Get ICLEI’s latest urban sustainability news

Similar Posts