Closing the loop in the circular economy: a collaborative exploratory project

The Circular Economy requires resources to flow around regenerative loops, which is a radical shift from our existing linear economy.  How can existing firms re-think and re-align their manufacturing to work in a sustainable future?

The Circular Economy is a way to continue to enjoy better living standards whilst also stopping environmental and resource decline; it’s a pathway to genuine sustainability.  But to achieve a true circular economy, resource and material loops need to be closed and this is the major problem facing society at the moment.  For the vast majority of resource and material pathways these ‘return loops’ are at best fragile and not fully formed, and at worst simply don’t exist at all.

Designers are a key part in changing this.

To explore potential solutions in a real-world situation, and as part of a larger research project into sustainability and the circular economy (funded by KESS2, Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship), Orangebox Ltd and the students of Surface Pattern Design at UWTSD came together in a collaborative project to explore generating value from waste.

Orangebox Ltd design and manufacture office furniture, they are based in South Wales with offices worldwide and sell globally.  Their products include task chairs, soft seating and ‘Pod’ meeting spaces.

Orangebox Ltd

Many of their products are upholstered and even after careful optimisation of the fabric pattern design and cutting process, there is always left-over material.  This is where they were keen to examine and explore new, intelligent and value enhancing solutions to this waste stream.

Currently this textile waste goes into the conventional municipal mixed solid waste stream and is most likely incinerated.  But that represents a huge loss in value and material resources.


How then to explore ways of addressing this waste stream to create value as part of a circular economy model?

To do this, a collaborative project was set up with students of the Surface Pattern Design course at Swansea College of Art, UWTSD. They were introduced to Orangebox and visited the factory to see first-hand the design and manufacturing operations.  They were then given a brief to design and make a new upholstery cloth cover for one of the existing Orangebox products:

One full day’s worth of textile off-cut waste was collected for the project (around 150kg) and delivered to the students.  There was no selection or sorting, so the material delivered was an accurate reflection of the type that is normally produced.


The outcomes

Other than creating a coherent, relevant and engaging student learning experience, there were no pre-conceived outcomes in mind, but the students produced a portfolio of work that far exceeded any expectations Orangebox had.  After 5 weeks, the students presented their design work:

Orangebox were pleased and impressed with the quality and imagination of the work: “Some of the best design work we’ve seen” and decided to take some of the work and create fully upholstered finished products:

As an exploration of the possibility of creating new and value driven products from what is considered ‘waste’, this project was a success.

But perhaps of more interest is to examine some of the additional themes that emerged and how these inform the transition to circular economy.


Technical properties and information flows

Technical issues are the most obvious aspects facing material resource re-use.  Within the existing linear economy, there is little or no thought for the onward use of waste outputs and their technical characteristics often preclude many uses or at best necessitate a considerable loss of value – so-called ‘down-cycling’.  A familiar example would be the recycling of plastics into low-value products such as packaging.

In this project, the students had considerable technical knowledge and a wide range of technical processes and skills at their disposal, but one stumbling block was not knowing the detailed composition of the waste fabric, its fibre type, dye methods or other physical characteristics.  All this information was lost as soon as the waste fabric was separated on the production line.  This illustrates that it is not only the physical resource that represents value lost, but also the information about the material resource.  Information flows are equally as important as material flows in the circular economy.


New working relationships for innovation

If new connections and processes are to be formed to ‘close loops’, then collaborative working will become increasingly important.  Collaboration nurtures innovation and it is that which will drive the transition from linear to circular economy.  In the past Orangebox has worked with university students many times, but always with product design students – a logical decision since the company’s business is based on product design and many of the key staff come from that background.  This project with students of Surface Pattern Design, was a new experience and one that would not have happened without the externally funded research project.  The perception of Surface Pattern Design as a discipline is that it would not be relevant to the Orangebox business model.  However, the outcomes proved this to be wrong and showed how important collaboration is with people outside of established ‘normal’ boundaries.  If we are to develop new solutions, we need to engage with new people who hold different skills and ideas.


Narrative and engagement

The students’ work and the finished products were shown at the Orangebox London Showroom as part of Clerkenwell Design Week, a key industry design festive held annually.  Whilst there, it proved a significant tool for engagement, both as an introduction to the products and also to the aims and thinking behind the development of the project.  It provided a focus for discussion with Orangebox’s clients and others, and showed that there was considerable positive feeling towards the ideas behind the project and the products it produced and illustrated that the perceived commercial risks associated with the transition to circular thinking and production were less burdensome than first thought; customers liked the idea and the products and could envisage buying them.


For the Future

This model of collaborative exploration could be replicated as a low-risk method for commercial firms to explore and progress towards a circular economy mode of operation, whilst also giving students valuable insight into the very tangible obstacles in the real-world transition to a fully circular economy model.  What is clear is that if the transition to a circular economy is to allow us a sustainable future, then activities like this need to be repeated far and wide to accelerate the transition process if we are to meet any of the sustainability targets we have set ourselves.