What is the lifecycle of a product?

For designers, aesthetics are definitively important to make people interested in using the product. However, the designer’s role goes beyond that. In fact, the design of a product starts at the beginning of the product’s lifecycle, it has therefore an influence on what will happen to the product in the future. Every product has a lifecycle. The latter can be broken down into phases: the production phase, the consumption phase and the end-of-life. For the designer, each of these phases raises questions such as “which materials and manufacturing techniques are used to produce the product?” or “How does the consumer use the product?” or “What will happen when the product will be discarded?”.

The importance of a product’s end-of-life

When we want to design a product that has a low impact on the environment, it is essential to think about what happens at the product’s end-of-life. This refers to the phase when the product is at the end of its useful life, or more commonly when the product becomes waste. It is important to empower the consumer to a more responsible way of disposing of the products she or he uses and this starts during the design phase.

Developing a circular lifecycle

Eco design goes against designing products which get discarded after only one use and that usually get incinerated at the end-of-life. Eco-design products go hand in hand with designing sustainable products, they answer to questions such as “How can we find ways that at their end-of-life, they will become a resource to make new products”. This is the same as striving to designing products which have a more circular lifecycle, following therefore a circular economy principle. The strategies which can be applied to develop eco-design products, aim at either extending or closing the lifecycle of products.

The difference between closing and extending a product’s lifecycle

Closing a product’s lifecycle means to use materials that can be easily recycled and from which to extract valuable secondary raw materials, used to make new products (1. Design for recycling). When the materials used are biodegradable, the product fits into the biological cycle, instead of a technical cycle that includes mechanical recycling. Biodegradability is the material’s capability of being degraded by biological activity (2. Design for biodegradability). Extending a product’s lifespan means designing products which will last for longer periods of time and will not break easily, in opposition to planned obsolescence. Durable products can be re-used several times (3. Design for reusability). In addition, an extended lifespan can also mean products that are easy to be disassembled and reassembled and are therefore designed to be repaired (4. Design for maintenance). Of course, the product with an extended lifespan can also be recycled and therefore have a closed lifecycle.

Below are four examples I selected showcasing eco design products.

1. Design for recycling

An example of this is InterFace Net-Works (http://net-works.com/) a program that sources fishing nets from coastal areas to clean up oceans and beaches while creating financial opportunities for people in impoverished communities and serving as a source to create recycled into yarn for Interface carpet. Interface has also an exemplar zero-waste mission, minimising the production of waste during production and post-consumption, introducing take back schemes to recycle as much as possible their old carpet tiles to make new tiles. https://www.interface.com/APAC/en-AU/campaign/climate-take-back/Climate-Take-Back-en_AU

2. Design for biodegradability

An example of design for biodegradability is to design products which are made with bio-polymers, that will be broken down under industrial conditions or biologically decomposed by microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi. The results from this decomposition is natural byproducts such as gases (CO2, N2), water, biomass, and inorganic salts. Rodenburg biopolymers develops Solanyl (http://biopolymers.nl/biopolymers/#solanyl), a polymer made with locally abundant raw materials, potato peels left over from the production of fries and other potato products. Solanyl biodegrades in soil and can be used as nutrients by micro-organisms. This makes it a suitable material for products that can end up in soil by mistake (plastic bags, disposable cutlery, festival coins) and products that deliberately dissolve during use (root guards, plant clips, potting cups).

 3. Design for reusability

Within this section, I selected the Finnish company RePack (https://www.originalrepack.com/) is developing a reusable and returnable delivery packaging which can be used for at least 20 cycles. RePack packaging comes in 3 different sizes where you can insert your goods, seal it and ships it to the recipient. Once received, the seal and goods are removed, and empty RePack is simply folded into letter size and returned to be reused. This reusable service is free of charge for the consumer. RePack takes the packaging back, checks it, cleans it and redistributes it.

 4. Design for maintenance

In the case of the company Gerrard Street (https://gerrardstreet.nl/) you do not buy headphones, you buy the service of hearing music on the go in the form of subscription. You can easily order your headphones on their webshop, receive it at home, use it as much as you want. If anything breaks, you can easily order a replacement module and receive it in your letter box. A return envelope for the damaged module is included. You don’t need to pay any extra fee for the repair.

To help you develop eco design products, “eco design sprints” are being developed. Taking inspiration from design sprints, a process using design thinking exercises with the aim of reducing the risk when bringing a new product to the market. The process helps to clearly define goals, validate assumptions and decide on a product roadmap before starting development. If you are in Berlin, the Learning factory organises eco design sprints for individuals as well as organisations, that you can check here https://ecodesignlearningfactory.com/ To know more about eco design principles German Federal Environment Agency is leading the Eco Design Circle initiative https://www.ecodesigncircle.eu/about-ecodesign which compile useful resources to support the development of eco design products. To check more examples of eco design products, the German Federal Ecodesign Award 2018 (https://bundespreis-ecodesign.de/en/index.html) awards the best products which follow eco design principles.

Marilu is an award-winning designer, actively working in the circular economy
area. She consults on sustainale packaging and designs innovative packaging solutions. Her experience combines creative application with technical knowledge of packaging manufacturing and plastic recycling.

Marilu Valente

Founder , Cyclic Design

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