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Engineering Circularity

Updated: Dec 27, 2021

Chapter Teaser for "Channeling Copernicus and Curie"

“Once designed it’s hard to reverse: ‘We can’t unscramble an omelette.’” ~Ellen MacArthur Foundation


When it comes to planning for a circular economy, intentional design plays a critical role. If we try to go at this issue by only cleaning up after existing consequences rather than preventing new ones, we will be left playing a never ending game of catch up and never actually achieving the goals we set out to accomplish.

Design Plan
Photo by Halacious on Unsplash

To avoid such futile efforts, we can proactively design systems and business models that support positive long-term change. Such radical proposals may seem intimidating, so rather than going into reformation blind, there are several informed frameworks we might use as inspiration. For example, Kresse Wesling (co-founder and CEO of Elvis & Kresse) swears by her methodology of social entrepreneurship which follows the stepwise process of:

1. Search for accessible waste streams
2. Choose a material
3. Understand the material and its properties
4. Get creative with possible uses

Three waste bin receptacles
Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash


This chapter, the first of the chapters in the Design section of “Penumbral Business Strategy” (Part Two of my book An Economic Eclipse: Shifting Toward a Sustainable Future by Eliminating Waste), addresses the need for technical systems management when it comes to circularity. Because the circular economy is interdisciplinary and complex, many different fields of expertise and schools of thought are necessary to drive forth the movement. One particularly important field is that of engineering — whereby solutions and infrastructure are designed to minimize waste and maximize resource reuse.

In fact, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, about 80% of the ecological impacts of a product are “locked in” during the design phase (Widmer, 2021). Therefore, even if we were to do our very best at mitigating waste from currently existing products, we likely wouldn’t get past much more than 20% effectiveness. This makes sense given the fact that our world is currently estimated to be about 8.6% circular (Circle Economy, 2020).

Moving forward, we need to utilize engineering to analyze systems and identify pain points in our currently existing production processes that have more or less existed since the Industrial Revolution. During this time period when mass consumption was accelerated, many seeds were planted for environmental issues and resource exploitation that are now becoming more apparent and problematic than ever.

Network model with strings
Photo by Eleventh Wave on Unsplash

Although I am a loud and proud environmentalist, this recognition is not only coming to a head in the activist community. Corporations, governments and a plethora of other stakeholders are already taking action. Throughout this chapter I discuss some of the leading examples of circular design, including:

· Seawater Works: a circular agriculture company relying on “The Other 97% of the World’s Water” and eliminating fertilizer, land and resource waste in their growing systems

· Nike: the corporate giant with innovative, wide-reaching programs to repurpose their shoes and activate the footwear industry to reduce waste and enhance recyclability through their design

· Compost Kitchen: a South African start-up creating an inclusive vermicomposting community to enhance both home gardens and soil quality throughout the drought-prone nation

Sneaker in a refrigerator
Photo by Alexandru Acea on Unsplash


By reading this chapter, you will not only learn more about the inspiration and inner workings of each of these companies, but you will also be introduced to forms of analysis such as lifecycle analysis, Cradle to Cradle and a decades-old equation called I=PAT, which has been used as a formula for sustainable development.

Immerse yourself into circular engineering by checking out my book on Amazon and cracking into “Channeling Copernicus and Curie.”

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