The Circular Economy Comes to Your Living Room

CC BY 2.0. Table made from old bowling alley/ Lloyd Alter

How to choose things for your home that have had, or can have, second lives.

The circular economy, as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, starts at the very beginning of the life of a product. "Waste and pollution are not accidents, but the consequences are made at the design stage, where 80 percent of environmental impacts are decided."

Most discussions of the circular economy relate to single-use plastics, but Emma Loewe of Mind Body Green raises very interesting points in her post, The Rise Of The Circular Economy & What It Means For Your Home. She notes that all the issues also apply to more longer-lived items.

When applied to physical products, designing for circularity means creating things that can be reused multiple times or broken down into their constituent parts and then rebuilt into equally valuable items. It's about designing out that end-of-life step altogether and making objects that can stay in use, in some form, indefinitely.

Loewe describes companies like Coyuchi, who chop up old textiles and turn it into fiber again, or initiatives like Good Stuff, a "one-month exploration of how to live well in the circular economy that displayed furniture, fashion, and home goods that were built using circular economy principles or bought off of secondhand websites."

Borrowing from food legend Michael Pollan, Good Stuff operated off the motto "Have Good Stuff. Not too much. Mostly reclaimed" – one that we could all stand to adopt in our own lives.
windows at cottage

Windows at cottage/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

These are issues that every designer should be thinking about. And not just buying vintage furniture (like I do) but getting creative with reusing and repurposing. Years ago we discussed Adhocism, coined by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver in 1973, "Basically it involves using an available system or dealing with an existing situation in a new way to solve a problem quickly and effectively. It is a method of creation relying particularly on resources which are already at hand." An example is the dining room table in my cabin, shown at top, made from a bowling alley that I cut out of a building early in my architectural career. My dad built the side table out of laminated shipping container flooring. Or these windows, taken from a Toronto house during a renovation and rehung in a cabin in the woods.

circular building

Ellen MacArthur Foundation/CC BY 2.0

As for buildings and communities, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation has looked at this too. As I noted in our post,

We currently keep a lot of people working in the linear economy, digging up resources, turning them into products like cars or buildings that then take a lot more resources to operate, use them until they wear out or we are bored with them or our needs change, then throw them away and start over.
Fernish dining room set

© Fernish

Emma Loewe points out all kinds of ways that people can think circular in their homes. One can subscribe to TerraCycle's new Loop program (although I think Katherine's ideas for living zero waste are more practical and realistic). There are furniture subscriptions services like Fernish (although I think you are better off buying used). She notes that even IKEA is thinking circular these days. "We're trying to make more from less to make less waste in our production," Lena Pripp-Kovac, head of sustainability at Inter IKEA Group.

Making stuff takes a lot of energy and makes a lot of CO2. Traditional recycling is, well, BS. Truly going circular is not easy; as I have written before, we have to change our entire culture; it is a different way of thinking about things. But as Loewe notes, we actually can go circular in our homes and in our kitchens, and it is still pretty enough for MindBodyGreen.