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Ecodesign comes full circle

15.05.2024

POM Limburg brought together a group of leading inspirers and future thinkers at Plein Publiek Brussel on 18 April 2024. The theme? ‘Ecodesign’, or sustainable design. This approach takes into account all possible environmental impacts throughout a product’s entire life cycle: from raw material extraction to disposal and implementing the circular economy. The goal is to look beyond our ecological as well as economic sense and achieve the smallest possible footprint, not only on paper but particularly in practice. “Close the loop!” is the mantra of the day. 

Anyone who thinks of a circular economy automatically says ‘recycling’. That in itself is not wrong, but it is only part of a bigger picture, argues Karine Van Doorsselaer, Professor in Materials Science and Ecodesign for the Product Development Department at the University of Antwerp. “Circular economy is all about value retention. We need to extend the life of products as far as possible. Product designers play a key role here.” They should focus on products we can maintain, reuse and repair, according to Van Doorsselaer. “Recycling is just the last step of the circular economy.” 

Pushing the reset button
Van Doorsselaer also immediately warns of the danger of perception. “There are no sustainable materials. The essence is the sustainable use of materials.” In doing so, she cites that paper is not necessarily an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic, as it often involves processed cardboard with a plastic film. Moreover, the production of cardboard also consumes a great deal of water, energy and chemicals. “Just because the material comes from a tree doesn’t mean it’s environmentally friendly.” 

Ecodesign stands for systematic thinking in line with the product, in addition to life-cycle thinking. To do this, we need new, circular business models, such as ‘products as a service’, where you pay for the use of a product without actually owning it. Or repair shops that extend the life of a product. “We need to ask ourselves: do I really need this product? Or would I rather just pay for its use?” Her final conclusion is already crystal clear: “To save our planet, we need to reset our consumption mentality.” 

Boosting circularity
The importance of ecodesign is also recognised internationally. Speaking on behalf of the European Commission, Policy Officer Martin Policar highlights the EU’s plans to boost the circular economy. Directives around Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation and Right to Repair, among others, should ensure that products last longer, are easier to repair and generate less waste. 

“Our action plan aims to make the circular economy workable not only for businesses, but also for regions, cities and people. Gaining traction in the market is crucial here, as many investors are still hesitant to invest heavily in circular solutions.” 

One notable initiative is the digital product passport. With this, every product produced in Europe will have a scannable QR code with information on sustainability, material composition and recyclability. 

Investing in trust together
From Europe to closer to home: Annelies Gorissen, Strategic Expert on Sustainability at POM Limburg, illustrates through some striking examples how we can transform from a ‘single use’ economy into a ‘built to last’ economy. “Unfortunately, the gap between awareness and action is still wide. 94% of people support the transition to a green economy, but only 10-20% are taking any actual steps. We just don’t like change or imposed rules.” 

So how can we facilitate the transition to a more sustainable future? “The good news is that the most important future innovations will emerge from new forms of collaboration. You don’t have to be the most innovative company – everyone can play a role in that.” For example, Annelies Gorissen illustrated some inspiring cases from the plastics sector, where POM Limburg is bringing together companies, designers, knowledge institutions and governments around specific sustainability challenges. 

“Collaboration is in the DNA of Limburgers. The proof: Limburg ranks a fine 20th place in the European Commission’s most recent ‘Regional Competitiveness Index’.” Gorissen also stressed the importance of investing in trust and ecosystems in which every stakeholder benefits. “The real added value occurs at the intersections where various sectors work together – sectors that would otherwise have no interface.” 

Emotional sustainability
It is, of course, the designers themselves who are – literally – shaping our circular future. Birgitt Deckers, ecodesigner at TomorrowLab, makes a case for designing sustainable furniture. “Ecodesign to me is the same as life-cycle design. You can make an impact in every step of product design: from sustainable material choices to leveraging short supply chains and minimising packaging materials.” 

Deckers indicates that we need to commit to emotional sustainability. “We need to create products that you don’t just throw away, but want to keep, refurbish or repurpose.” In doing so, she echoes the idea of a digital passport to make the closed loop more tangible. “Create value-added products and let consumers do more with less.” 

Bio-building blocks for sustainable products
Prof Dr Yvonne van der Meer, lecturer in Sustainability of Chemicals and Materials at Maastricht University, is investigating the strategic use of bio-based materials such as wood fibres, sugar beet, corn or flax as alternatives to fossil raw materials, with the aim of reducing the environmental impact of products. “Bio-based products have great potential to contribute to climate neutrality and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. With our research group, we are looking for new ways to make bio-based materials and chemical building blocks that are both environmentally friendly and affordable.” 

Alongside that, van der Meer stresses the importance of a conclusive international framework to identify the principles of ecodesign as accurately as possible. “To close the gap between fictional scenarios and real-world results, we need to think holistically and add both environmental and economic criteria to our models. Therein lies the greatest challenge.” 

Putting an effort in from every angle
Finally, some stakeholders from the field take the floor. Through some concrete use cases, they demonstrate how their companies are managing to use innovation to embrace circularity. From plastics processors Morssinkhof-Rymoplast and Zweko Optics, to sustainable building materials specialist Soprema, their message sounds in unison. “Only by working together with stakeholders from every angle can we close the loop and achieve a circular economy.” 

© POM Limburg 2024
POM Limburg implements the socio-economic policy of the province of Limburg.
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