Designing within the circular economy

How can the food industry and their equipment vendors use design as a tool to enter the circular economy? 

Circular design is a tool used in the circular economy. The future must become more sustainable than what it is today, and designers can pave the way forward by using circular design.  

Circular design

In circular design, the idea is to design the product so that it influences the whole system around it in a circular way. To do this, the industrial designer must step further away from the product that what one usually does. To look at different levels of complexity isn’t new, but this holistic approach requires that the designers think about the system that a product or service is a part of. Circular design is never done, it’s not like “linear design” where you design a product and send it off into the world. In circular design, the product will return to become repaired, upgraded, reused or recycled. In “linear design”, the main focus is on the end user, in circular economy one widens the view and considers all stakeholders and users of a product in every phase of the products life cycle. For a designer, this includes building feedback loops into the product and knowing the life cycle of the materials that are being used.[1]  

Design strategies 

There are two main design strategies to work with. These as designing for slowing resources loops and designing for closing resource loops. [2]   

Design for long-life products (slow down loops) 

  • Design for attachment and trust 
  • Design for reliability and durability 

Design for product-life extension (slow down loops) 

  • Design for ease of maintenance and repair 
  • Design for  upgradeability and adaptability 
  • Design for standardisation and combability 
  • Design for  dis– and reassembly 

Design strategies to close loops 

  • Design for a technological cycle 
  • Design for a biological cycle 
  • Design for dis– and reassembly  

In addition, design strategies such as Biomimicry, Life Cycle Analysis and Cradle to cradle design is other options to use on the way towards sustainable design. 

Focus areas for the food industry and their vendors

The two main focus areas for the food industry are how to use rest raw material for high value products and packaging design with all its issues to consider. For the food vendor companies, there are different focus areas. This is material knowledge, design for disassembly and upcycling, hygienic design, design for maintenances, upgrading and repair and design for professional user groups and stakeholders to mention some key focus areas.  

iProcess applications 

In the iProcess project, there are several cases that investigates how new and flexible technology can improve todays production methods. One case investigates how to measure fat- and dry matter in cheese. There are also quite different cases that looks into robotics and how robots can be used for cutting down ham or packaging of fragile and compliant objects with variations in shape and size such as fish. What these different cases have in common is how to bring these technologies into products that will be a part of the every day use in different production plants. When we look upon this task from a circular design perspective, the strategies for slowing down resource loops are important to have in mind. One needs to design for durability and reliability. It’s also important to design for product life extension so that it is easy to clean, maintain, repair and the possibility to change parts when needed or upgrade the software. And last, but not least, to design for dis- and reassembly so that the different materials that the product consists of can be taken care of in their respective cycles for a new afterlife. This will also contribute to design for closing the material loops. 

Other cases in the iProcess project investigates information flow. As previous mentioned, hides from Nortura are being used by Norilia for different products. The iProcess project is looking into the information flow from farm to tannery, which technology can be used to transfer information throughout the process and give feedback to previous stages. This information can then be used to improve each stage performance so that the hides for every improvement in the production line from farm to tannery will improve the quality of the hides. With an improved quality of the hides, the producers will have an increased flexibility to choose what to produce from the hides. This will give the producer a greater chance to meet the consumers demands and create products suited for a circular economy.  

Another case that investigates information logistics, and raw material flow is two cases on whitefish. How much information is on board a fishing vessel about the catch, can more information be captured and how soon can this information be transferred to the production plant, so they can start planning their production? With an optimized production plan, more of the raw material can be used for suiting applications that fits the marked. Optimized production planning that takes the marked into consideration will in a circular economy point of view possibly reduce the amount of cascading at the retailer and end consumer stage and more of the products will be used as intended.  


There is always a challenge when starting with a new approach, but circular design is the way forward to create a sustainable future. Industrial designers can pave the way by showing how different methods can be used within a company. Designers can be the drivers for a change towards circular economy by creating products and services that matches the demands for a sustainable future. 

By: Cecilie Salmonosen

figure Linear vs. circular economy