Reinventing resource efficiency: How design is driving innovation


resource efficiency

Resource efficiency is being designed into products and systems across the world, Katie Coyne investigates the innovative designs that are creating a more sustainable society.

Companies and products make lots of claims about sustainability, circularity, and resource efficiency. We can make small changes to improve sustainability but what we need to do ultimately is redesign whole systems.

It’s a mammoth undertaking but here are some ways that resource efficiency is being designed into products and systems.

“It’s always better to put effort into being more sustainable, that’s not a bad thing, but is it a sufficient thing?” asks transition engineer Prof Susan Krumdieck at Heriot Watt University. “That’s where being a bit more sustainable, when you are talking about an unsustainable thing, is just buying a little time.”

Flooring is one surprising area that has been undergoing a quiet revolution. The professor and her team have been looking at how Danish flooring company Tarkett changed its entire business model. 

What Tarkett did was particularly interesting to Krumdieck because their process of change seemed very similar to transition engineering.  

Transition engineering is the process that will get you to a circular economy, she explains. It’s a case of stepping back and asking yourself “Is there anything unsustainable about this product or service?” as opposed to “What could I add to this that is more sustainable?”, which Krumdieck argues is a profoundly different question.

It’s always better to put effort into being more sustainable, that’s not a bad thing, but is it a sufficient thing?

Tarkett asked everyone in the company to get involved in redesigning their business model in much the same way that Krumdieck advocates for engineers to be tasked with re-engineering unsustainable products and systems.

Tarkett produced mostly commercial flooring, so big squares of hard-wearing vinyl carpet that were replaced frequently and not recycled. Anything going to landfill after one use is inherently not sustainable, especially a product that is never going to biodegrade.

Even if Tarkett made it recyclable there was no guarantee that it actually would be. So Tarkett built a business model around leasing, rather than selling. When a customer wants to freshen up their flooring instead of replacing it in its entirety they can replace just the worn or damaged parts.

“If you’re leasing you’d rather just replace the worn bits than replace it all,” says Krumdieck. “If you’re the company leasing you’d look at how to put it together so that it does what flooring is asked to do, and has all the properties needed, but when you get it back you can cost-effectively deconstruct it, re-sort it, and refurbish it.” 

Innovations like these raise the bar within a sector, says Krumdieck, and this does seem to be borne out as the idea has been catching on in the UK flooring sector. 

Carpet Recycling UK has been working with the textile flooring supply chain in the UK, encouraging the replacement of worn or damaged parts of carpets, reuse, take-back schemes, and recycling.

carpet recycling
Carpet Recycling UK has been working with the textile flooring supply chain in the UK.

It is working with more than half of the sector and helped divert 81% of carpets from landfill in 2021 – this compared to just 2% in 2007.  

Food is another area where there are lots of labels that sound good, things like organic, free range, farm assured, natural, and responsibly sourced, but they all mean different things.

More than 3m tonnes of good-to-eat food, enough for 7bn meals, is wasted in the UK food supply chain each year despite a growing food poverty crisis globally and in the UK. Worldwide, food waste produces up to 10% of man-made carbon emissions.

Food also crosses with packaging sustainability and the big row over plastics. It’s here that smaller changes, as opposed to bigger systems changes, can be seen as conflicting and perhaps a bit disappointing.

“Sustainability tends to mean different things to different people,” says Phil Conran director of 360 Environmental. “How much is it to the benefit of the product and how much is looking purely at the packaging? Plastic will often extend the life of a product, especially food, but that isn’t necessarily what people want at the moment.” 

Food has a complicated supply chain with the global north being afforded the luxury of eating almost year-round out-of-season produce and industrial farming being chemical, soil, and water intensive. 

Charities like the Sustainable Food Trust are taking a multi-pronged approach encouraging mixed farming systems where possible and, among more established food chains, swapping out less sustainable ingredients with more sustainable ones.

Sustainability tends to mean different things to different people.

“A lot of our focus is on mixed farming systems,” says spokesperson Victoria Halliday, “systems that integrate arable, so crops, and livestock in the same area, because that then enables nutrients to be cycled through that system. 

“Livestock are producing manure, which fertilises the ground used to grow crops. It’s such a huge topic, but the basic facets of that are more localised systems; enabling local retailers to have more of a foothold, and stronger connections between farmers and people buying food products.” 

There are lots of different mixed farming systems and approaches, and they are given different names such as regenerative agriculture and carbon farming. Most focus on improving soil health, which also sequesters carbon, use no-dig practices to preserve the soil, plant local crops, and adapt systems to make the most of the local climate. 

A well-known example is Ricardo Romero’s farm in the cloud forest region of Veracruz in Mexico. Despite starting as a fertile region, by the 1990s up to 90% had been deforested and the soil severely degraded through intensive grazing of cattle and coffee growing.

When Romero took over his family ranch he sold most of his cattle and planted 50,000 native trees over more than half of the land, and allowed the rest to regenerate naturally. Under the trees, he established a silvopasture mix of animal grazing and perennial crops.

Regenerative styles of farming produce high yields in small spaces, improve biodiversity, and if adopted globally could remove 1.2bn tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere every year.  

The Ellen MacArthur Circular Design for Food framework has imagined future 2030 sustainable food products and one of these is “Silvo” a cheese made from cow’s milk and walnuts produced in a silvopasture system in Bretagne, France.  

Products that are shaking up the food system right now at the consumer end include the raft of food redistribution apps, some working in conjunction with food redistribution charity FareShare, such as Olio, TooGoodToGo, OddBox, and Foodiverse. 

Data centre
The huge growth in the use of computing is also increasing less obvious costs in energy and water use, Coyne writes.

Apps make collecting and distributing surplus food much easier, and increased computing power, especially AI, is creating opportunities to make sustainable changes in many areas not just food.

The recycling sector has also seen huge benefits from AI in improvements to recyclables sorting technology accuracy from the likes of RecycleEye, Greyparrot, and Tomra. Online waste platform Dsposal is collaborating on projects working on more efficient data processes such as GING and Open 3P.

It’s hoped this could save energy “compared to the current extremely inefficient ways people exchange data currently through massive spreadsheets, pdfs, a plethora of online forms duplicating work,” says CEO and co-founder of Dsposal Sophie Walker.

AI is also being used to predict plastic and other pollution in water courses, for example, in a project headed up by CGI in the UK and working with the Ordnance Survey and the United Nations. The AI system has been able to forecast pollution events at a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) protected site in Combe Martin with high levels of accuracy.

AI, digital twin, and the Internet of Things (IoT) are being embraced by the construction industry to make sustainable changes, as the sector contributes around 37% of global emissions. 

It uses computer modelling to spot design issues earlier and prevent material waste, calculate carbon costs, create more efficient build flows with fewer lorry movements, and much more.

However, the huge growth in the use of computing is also increasing less obvious costs in energy and water use. ChatGPT, for instance, uses half a litre of water for every five to 50 questions it is asked and more than half a million kilowatt-hours of electricity each day. Rising energy costs and environmental concerns have helped disrupt this area.

Data banks are basically a load of computers that crunch information and support the internet and everything digital.

“Data banks are basically a load of computers that crunch information and support the internet and everything digital. Traditionally they are huge warehouses full of computers and they produce a load of heat – like your laptop heats up when you use it,” says Will Melling spokesperson for data centre start-up Deep Green, which aims to recycle this heat.  

Reusing heat is not a new idea, there are well-established and large district heat network systems in Scandinavia. Stockholm has had a district heating system since the 1950s and in 2022 it recovered 100 GWh, enough to heat 30,000 apartments. 

Deep Green has plans to place small data centres next to places where the excess heat can be used. Last year it set up a data centre at a leisure centre swimming pool complex in Exmouth, Devon.  

The data bank is set to the side of the pool but bathed in an oil that creates a heat exchange: the pool water cools the computers and in doing so is warmed up for swimmers. 

Deep Green is focussing on pools for now, but the approach could be applied to any industrial process that requires a consistent heat of around 50 to 70 C degrees such as launderettes or distilleries.

Melling adds: “Deep green doesn’t use any additional water for cooling and they are much more energy efficient. When you’ve got a traditional data centre with a load of air conditioning, 50% of the energy it drains is spent just on cooling, so that’s not even running the computers.” 

Looking back to the built environment, the German design standard Passive House developed in the 1980s has had a huge influence. The standard requires building properties that are very energy efficient; warm in winter and cooling in the summer, and they hardly need any heating or cooling. While there is a specific PassivHaus standard, this concept has reached far beyond itself.  

One of the largest passive house projects in the UK is Norwich-based Goldsmiths Street which was completed in 2019 and has 93 homes. Residents report savings of up to 63% on energy bills and some have even reduced their use of medication because cold homes not only leak heat but also cause ill-health. 

Energy-efficient homes not only save carbon but also improve health and reduce the use of healthcare resources. 

Last year, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) analysed English housing data and estimated that the NHS spends over £540m a year treating people affected by the worst cold homes. They found the cost of repairs and upgrades to this housing would pay itself back within nine years. 

Fast fashion is another area where there are interesting sustainable design developments.

Fast fashion is another area where there are interesting sustainable design developments. The bigger high street chains have been trying to improve their sustainability producing products with more recycled content and organic materials, but there has been no significant decrease in volume. 

There are growing concerns about the increased use of plastic fibres. Last year, PlanetCare launched a device that attaches to your washing machine to collect the microplastics released from clothing during the wash, but it is not mandatory.

Huge developments have been made in textile recycling with the introduction of fully automated sorting equipment. Stadler and Tomra opened a facility three years ago in Malmo, Sweden closely followed by the Salvation Army which launched its own automated Fibersort system.

Apps and websites like Vinted and Thrift+ in addition to Facebook marketplace, Gumtree, and eBay are making it easier to sell used clothing and are encouraging reuse. 

Sustainable clothing brands such as People Tree, Howies, and Huit Denim are sourcing organic materials and producing plastic-free clothing from materials such as cotton Ventile and even asking consumers whether they need to buy any more clothes.

Womenswear company Wool& has been running with the slow fashion idea through the 100-day wear challenge and has been asking women to see if they can wear the same dress for 100 days.

The dress in question comes in a range of colours and styles and is made from soft merino wool, which is naturally odour-resistant. The idea is that any stains or spills can be spot-washed and odours aired to save on the water, energy and chemicals that go into laundering. 

It also taps into the idea of “time” being a resource and easing the “mental load” that women carry. Not having to spend energy thinking about what you’re going to wear is not a new idea, the London-based artist duo Gilbert and George had wardrobes of identical tweed suits, sourced from tailors locally. 

In the quest for true resource efficiency what we spend our time on is critical, as Krumdieck says, “Right now, we don’t need any more people researching hydrogen. What we don’t yet know is how to register value. Not every carbon molecule is created equal, not every plastic polymer born into the world does its job equally.  

“There’s a specific kind of plastic that allows the face mask on a premature infant to be fitted in a way so that it doesn’t crush its bones. That piece of plastic is so different from the shampoo bottle. Until we are able to answer that question ‘should this be in the world?’ we’re not going to have the metrics we need to do the reengineering of things.”

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