At a time when we face tumultuous changes on many fronts, we urgently need design to help us manage them. Design is not a panacea, but if it is applied intelligently, it is a powerful tool with which we can address these issues. The biggest shift of all is in the design of products.
Let’s take wet wipes as an example and attempt to find a solution. Wet wipes are currently produced using polyester or by a blending polyester with viscose or cotton fibres. Wet wipes applications include baby wipes, personal hygiene, cleaning, industrial wipes and medical applications. Wipes are today part of almost every household. However, in its current form, a used wet wipe after disposal persists in the environment for hundreds of years, as some of its constituents are non-biodegradable polyester. So, what should be done to solve this? There are no easy answers. Instead, questions abound! If you ban wet wipes, what will consumers replace it with? Should one then find an alternative to the polyester used in these wipes? Can they instead be made of biodegradable materials? But then, which biodegradable materials? What will be the quality and efficacy of the final product if the core material is replaced? Also, even if a product is biodegradable, should the manufacturing process also be relooked at to reduce harmful chemicals and processing?
Plastic based products are just one example of the challenges that can arise when trying to repurpose hard-to-handle materials in the circular economy. A new wave of advanced manufacturing technologies are now hitting the market, most notably the explosion in 3D printing polymers and other additive manufacturing materials. Even toxic materials are permissible in the circular economy, so long as the material is kept in the production cycle throughout its useful life.
While product design and innovation can help create better products, we need also product journeys with the customer in mind. A well designed product or a new material is only useful when the customer takes to it. Hence sustainable products and services are just the beginning. The true challenge lies in enabling sustainable consumption and disposal. Electric vehicles and solar panels are old technologies. They are yet to see mass adoption by individual consumers. Customer experiences that help address adoption challenges need to be created.