How thinking circular can solve old problems

By Phil Crawford

The impact a product can have on the environment is set from the day it is designed. So, how can that be changed? Phil Crawford learns how XLabs is helping businesses to think outside the square. 

Earlier this year 18 teams from a wide range of businesses met in Auckland. Each came with a sustainability issue to solve. Their challenge was to create new opportunities using a circular economy approach. That thinking focuses on designing out waste, keeping valuable resources in circulation and regenerating natural systems.

XLabs gave them the opportunity to explore innovative ideas by taking a close look at the full life of their products from the design phase through to what happened to them when they were no longer needed or worn out. This circular economy approach is fundamental to product stewardship which is all about businesses taking responsibility for the products they make and sell so they’re not ending up in landfill.

XLabs was designed and delivered by Sustainable Business Network investor Circularity, in partnership with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED). The five-day programme was run over consecutive weeks.

Circularity founder Louise Nash says the aim of XLabs is to stimulate the innovation and collaboration that’s needed to transition New Zealand to a more regenerative, circular economy.

“XLabs is contributing to a more sustainable Aotearoa by creating space for businesses to accelerate solutions that use circular economy principles to reduce waste, keep materials in flow and regenerate the natural environments their systems interact with,” she explains.

“By fast-tracking these ideas, embedding circular mindsets and sparking more cross-industry collaborations, XLabs is enabling more meaningful and lasting changes for today, this year and for the next decade to come.”

Research commissioned by the Sustainable Business Network (SBN) shows that transitioning to a circular economy is an opportunity worth up to $8.8 billion in additional economic activity for Auckland alone. Other benefits include reductions in both carbon emissions and the use of primary resources.

Designing out waste

My colleague at SBN, and General Manager Projects and Advisory, James Griffin says up to 80% of the environmental pollution created by a product can be attributed to the decisions that were made during the design process.

“Introducing good product stewardship is a foundational step in the shift to a circular economy. It’s great to see XLabs is helping New Zealand businesses to lead the way.”

The first XLabs programme this year attracted teams from across a range of industries including transport, construction, fashion, education and tourism. Following on from the programme some of those teams are now being connected with funders and solution providers so they can put their ideas into play.

Fletcher Building is a good example. It is now recruiting for a PhD student for a six-month project, using Callaghan Innovation research funding, to scope and research the circular system that was developed as part of XLabs.

The challenge it took along to XLabs was to find a way to stop thousands of tonnes of the medium-density fibreboard (MDF) ending up as waste every year. MDF is used in furniture and cabinetry. It is estimated that about 90% of the MDF produced in New Zealand is eventually dumped into landfill. Some of it is generated as waste during manufacturing, while much of it is thrown out when it reaches the end of life.

“By using the ‘circular by design’ methodology we learned at XLabs, we looked at the MDF challenge from all sorts of new angles – mapping out the system, identifying the source of MDF waste streams, talking to stakeholders, making connections, identifying the impacts and opportunities to innovate,” says Michael Burgess from Fletcher Building.

The Fletcher Building team, at XLabs, working on new ways to design out waste.

The team designed a solution that reimagined how we might build and care for our homes in the future. Instead of buying a kitchen as a product it could be supplied as a service. There are parallels with the Netflix business model. Rather than hiring or buying movies, you stream them for a monthly fee. Netflix is responsible for providing the technology and keeping its catalogue up to date. Similarly, having your kitchen provided as a service means it would be continually maintained, customised, and updated to increase its useful life.

In turn, this would drive good product stewardship where manufacturers are responsible for all the materials used in construction and have systems in place to deal with them at the end of life. The team came up with a number of potential solutions to close the loop on MDF waste across the supply chain. They included:

  • Using smart materials and technologies to make MDF from renewable, natural alternatives.
  • Working with third parties to reuse MDF offcuts and discards.
  • Recovering core materials and remanufacturing MDF into new products.
  • Turning MDF waste streams into something completely new, like a fibre insulation product.

A second walk of life

The team from children’s shoemakers, Bobux, landed on a completely new business model to extend the use of their shoes.

It proposed a circular platform that would enable each pair of Bobux shoes to be bought, worn and loved, before being returned, repaired and resold for their next walk of life.

Bobux’s ambition is to build a community around this solution and platform to create large scale, global impact by leading a new generation of sharing. It says the potential is huge. By the end of 2021, it aims to have three countries in the new system with 10,000 pairs of shoes on their second or third walk of life.

“It’s exciting to see this type of innovative, circular thinking happening across so many sectors,” says Louise.

“The circular economy has moved beyond a niche topic, to become an undeniable necessity for the world — this is the new narrative for innovation and progress.”

XLabs is scheduled to be an annual event and there are plans to extend it to other parts of the country. You can register your interest in the next XLabs here, and learn more about the other challenges and solutions that featured at the first XLabs held this year. And, check out SBN’s product stewardship website to find out more about businesses that are already using circular economy principles to design and make products that last longer and then reusing, repurposing and recycling them when they’re worn out or no longer needed.

Main photo: Louise Nash, front right, and the XLabs crew