Startup Opportunities in Circular Hardware

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Startups are embracing circular economic principles like sharing and virtualization, but can hardware startups decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources?

Though not all products can be redesigned for a completely circular system, hardware startups can take advantage of opportunities that solve a customer problem while preserving raw materials and reducing waste.

The Role of Designers

Hardware startups need designers that consider the entire life cycle of the product from raw material to disposal. The hardware development team needs to look upstream to reduce raw material usage and look downstream to identify new ways to use the waste and keep it from going to the landfill.

Teams need to focus on the circulation of existing material waste streams in order to minimize the need for virgin material. Designers need to think about mining the material waste stream rather than mining the earth.

It is vital to design hardware for disassembly at the end of the products life to preserve the labor, energy, water and capital invested in the materials. The ability to easily separate components into biological and technical nutrients ensures that material flows avoid the landfill.

Biological nutrients need to be free of toxic materials like dyes, bleach, and pesticides in order to safely re-enter the biosphere and decompose in the soil. Technical nutrients need to be free of adhesives for rapid disassembly; employing quick release fasteners rather than harmful glues.

However, disassembly isn’t the first choice on the designers list of circular options.

Circular Design Hierarchy

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Designers need to ensure that a products material, energy, and invested capital remain at the highest levels at all times. The circular design hierarchy is a framework that ranks the levels of circularity available for products throughout their life cycle.

The first level pertains to product life extension; reuse, repair and refurbish. Consumers throw out products that are broken, out of fashion, or no longer needed; product life extension ensures the highest value is maintained for the longest possible time frame. It is the role of the designer to ensure products are reusable, repairable, and upgradable to encourage a long use cycle.

Once a product reaches the end of its original use cycle and subsequent life extension cycles, it proceeds to the next level of the circular design hierarchy. Remanufacturing and recycling require a product to be disassembled to recover components and materials. Remanufacturing ensures materials remain at their highest value by upcycling components into new higher value products. Recycling reuses the raw materials; however, they are downcycled into products of lower value.

The lowest level of the circularity hierarchy is recovery of remaining value through energy production or biological nutrients. The lowest level of circularity should only be considered once all preceding levels have been exhausted.

Circularity Hierarchy

Reuse
Find new ways to reuse the product in its existing configuration.

• Can the product be refilled?
• Can the product be used to perform a different task?

Repair
Design the product for easy maintenance and repair. Repair should be seen as an opportunity to establish brand loyalty.

• Can the product be modular for easy part replacement?
• Can the user easily access repair manuals and spare parts?

Refurbish
Design the product to be upgraded or remarketed.

• Can the product be customized by the user?

Remanufacture
Design the product for disassembly into components and materials that can be used in products of higher value.

• Can the product be assembled without the use of adhesives?
• Can product components be easily separated for parts harvesting?

Recycle
Design the product for material recovery and waste separation.

• Can components be ground down into a more uniform material?

Recover
Design low value components for energy and nutrients recovery.

• Can energy be recovered from waste materials?
• Can biological nutrients be safely returned to the soil?

Circular Hardware Startups

There are many great examples of startups applying principles from the circular design hierarchy to reduce waste and preserve raw materials.

Product Life Extension (Reuse, Repair, and Refurbish):

Fairphone offers a modular smartphone that can be easily customized, upgraded, or repaired. The modular approach extends the product life cycle and establishes brand loyalty with customers.

iFixit is a wiki-based website that provides repair manuals and resources to help people fix their own electronics and extend the life of their products.

CleanPath offers a line of cleaning products with refillable pods; the user only needs to replace the bottom pod rather than dispose of the entire product.

Remanufacturing (Upcycle):

Bureo upcycles old fishing nets into skateboards, turning waste plastic into high value sports equipment.

Elvis & Kresse upcycle damaged fire hoses into designer bags and wallets, creating high value products from discarded material flows.

Recycling (Downcycle):

Nike Grind recycles worn out athletics shoes, turning the ground down shoes into surface material for tennis courts and athletic tracks.

Recover (Energy and Biological Nutrients):

Enrich manufactures compost and soil from organic waste streams, creating new products from recovered biological nutrients.

Clearly there are countless opportunities for hardware startups to work with designers and apply the circular design hierarchy to create products that not only solve real customer problems, but also decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources.

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