Beneath the Surface – June 1, 2021
Leave a comment

LOOP–Designing a more circular future

By Lauren Burnham & Emily McGalliard, Illustrations by Eric Pryor


Over the spring semester, we investigated issues that arise when designing for physical or digital social interactions within communities. Initially, each student was tasked with identifying a wicked problem, defined by Jon Kolko as a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve (Kolko). Working in groups, we began studying the specific problem area through direct social science and design research methods such as interviews, focus groups and demographic data with relationship to community. Much of the semester consisted of exploring and discussing the chosen problem, interviewing experts and individuals with lived experience and finally reframing the issue based on this research. Consistent points of reflection were key throughout the semester, leading us to our final project proposal, where we narrowed our original problem scope of recycling and sustainability by looking to design itself. In seeing how designers contribute to the problem of waste generation through products and materials, we are able to look at ways the issue can be mitigated. This led us to the exploration of a circular vs. linear economy and to the development of an educational workshop tool for design students to equip them with information to carry forward into their design practice.


We began our investigation into the wicked problems of waste and sustainability by researching current measures to mitigate waste generation. However, this investigation consistently indicated that strategies aimed towards the end of the waste life cycle are insufficient to address the inherent problem. The search for intervention opportunities within the current system involved grassroots advocates, local organizations, individual behaviors and attitudes, and municipal recycling managers. Yet each of these stakeholders pointed towards the same types of underlying issues, which stem from the complex and flawed system surrounding the production and consumption of goods in the United States. 

While recycling remains the primary method of diverting waste from landfills, recycling rates remain low due to frequent contamination, low participation, high prevalence of non-recyclable materials, and the high expenses associated with recycling programs (“Recycle Right N.C. Factsheet”). Successful programs targeting waste reduction are those that shift responsibility to producers and focus interventions on the supply end of the process. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which has been adopted in some European countries, has proven effective at reducing supply-side waste generation and improving reuptake of recycled materials. In the United States, however, much of the burden of contending with waste remains with consumers. Furthermore, materials cannot be recycled indefinitely, and while recycling keeps them in circulation longer, these materials ultimately end up in landfills. 

Figure 1. A linear economic model of the product life cycle.

A solution to the waste problem requires a solution outside of the linear “take, make, dispose” product life cycle, within which interventions typically prolong the disposal process. While effective policy change remains the most impactful way to influence waste production by producers, a re-envisioning of the product life cycle provides opportunities for lasting change in waste reduction and creates room for interventions on the micro and macro levels.


Recycling is not a long-term solution, but simply a delay in the process from creation to landfill. Our interview with a representative from North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality pointed towards the issue of how few produced goods actually are recyclable and how contamination often leads to recyclable goods ending up in landfills.  We also discussed the changing economic landscape surrounding recycling and the representative emphasized that recycling is a way of dealing with only a small portion of North Carolina’s waste stream.

Our interview with a community director of the Raleigh branch of Toward Zero Waste, a North Carolina non-profit focused on environmental policy and minimizing household waste generation, underscored the problematic nature of relying on personal choices and lifestyle changes on the part of individuals and households in tackling the issue of waste. Making consistently sustainable choices can be expensive and time consuming, and, as each of our interviewees touched on, much of the control of waste generation is out of the hands of individual consumers. Our stakeholders all indicated that the solution is not as simple nor as straightforward as bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store. The solution, therefore, should not be targeted towards shifting the behavior of consumers, but instead towards shifting the types of things that are produced, and the way stakeholders on the production end of our systems think about how things should be made, used, and disposed of. 

Figure 2. A circular economic model of the product life cycle.

Our interview with the founder of Circular Triangle, a Research Triangle Park non-profit educating on the linear to circular economic model shift, framed the issue not only as one of policy, but of the mindset behind our current models and our relationship to consumption. This interviewee emphasized the distinctions between our current linear economy, in which a product is made, used, and disposed of, and the circular economy, which makes efforts to keep an item in use as long as possible, shifts responsibilities for waste away from consumers and towards manufacturers, and redirects much of the waste stream back into manufacturing. They pointed out the challenges to shifting towards a circular approach, including the issue of adoption by businesses. The interviewee pointed out that through a combination of altered business models and policy changes that economically incentivizes waste reduction, a circular approach could be made economically beneficial to businesses. This step is essential in order to create buy-in with businesses and change the supply side of the waste problem. Such changes to business models would likely require a different approach to the way individuals think of purchasing and consuming goods, and the interplay between buy-in by businesses and buy-in by consumers. 

Figure 3. DIKW (Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom) visual assessment of stakeholder interviews.


Figure 4. Workshop facilitator resources page with artifact cards, diagrams and materials

After interviews with stakeholders, and processing these interviews through a DIKW assessment, which places concepts in a Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom framework, we took a design-centered approach to the problem. Designers are poised to play a pivotal role in transforming the systems of production and consumption in unique ways. Individuals in design roles may be actively involved in  how a product is made, what the product is composed of, and may be in positions to create, market, and popularize new models of producing and consuming goods. 

Circular design solutions, which provide alternatives to the “take, make, dispose” linear model, require a different approach to the way individuals think about and interact with products. Effective solutions require buy-in by both businesses and consumers, highlighting the importance of thoughtful designs that eliminate waste without alienating consumers or business partners. 

Such a design problem requires a holistic awareness of the issue on the part of the people who design our products and services, who, while not responsible for many of the grander economic and policy-based decisions that are largely responsible for stemming the waste stream, are nonetheless uniquely positioned to design products and services that can challenge consumer outlooks towards consumption while expediting  the transition away from the linear consumption model. 

Current design education for many students may not provide the system-level perspective necessary for advocating for such solutions, and may not address issues of sustainability at all. Providing a concise way to engage design students with the issues of waste and sustainability, and prompting them to hypothesize about system-level circular solutions, is crucial to equipping designers for a more sustainable future.


The ultimate product of this research was a proposed design education module and accompanying workshop led by the instructor. We believe that an experiential approach is most likely to have a lasting impact upon design students to be carried with them as they continue in their career paths. While the statistics surrounding the issues of our waste system and of sustainability are staggering, simply reading this information may lead designers to feel discouraged or powerless about their roles. We want to encourage designers to alter their thinking surrounding design processes as it relates to sustainability. A creative workshop experience will support creative thinking outside of current methods of production and aid designers in thinking through designing out waste. This workshop can be applied to varying disciplines within design, such that individual participants can form their own takeaways that will prove applicable within their own career paths. 

The workshop and website experience should address three main goals:

  1. Familiarize participants with the issues of waste reduction as it relates to the design of products and services, as well as with the broader landscape of issues related to waste.
  2. Encourage participants to weigh their own potential roles and impacts, and ways in which they could be impactful within their future practice.
  3. Prompt users to engage in a creative process that encourages them to think outside traditional linear systems of production to consider large-scale and systemic solutions for addressing the future in creative ways.

Figure 5. Examples of downloadable workshop artifact cards.

Figure 6. Workshop storyboard page for facilitator use.

Moving Forward

Bringing awareness to issues that can and should be considered in design practice is a start, but learning how to engage with and holistically consider such issues is substantially more difficult. Design instructors must find creative ways to prompt students to think outside of their well-established patterns of thought. While readings — and even projects — may be quickly forgotten, new habits of thinking can stay with design students as they move towards professional practice. Equipping students to frame their design practice in the context of sustainability and system-level thinking is a great way to begin to orient the goods and services of the future to become more sustainable on a fundamental level. Towards this end, designers must begin to reconsider not only the context of the goods and services they design for, but also their own professional roles. Designers, and those in adjacent fields, are in a position to influence opinion towards more sustainable solutions. This cannot be accomplished, however, without asking design students to begin forming a clearer vision of the past, present, and future of sustainability, and without equipping them with the tools they need to begin to shape this future.

Lauren Burnham (MGD ‘22) is a Master of Graphic Design Candidate at North Carolina State University. She is interested in user experience design and research, as well as museum experience design.

Emily McGalliard (MGD ‘22) is a Master of Graphic Design Candidate at North Carolina State University. Her research interests include smart cities and design for social innovation.

Works Cited

  • Kolko, Jon. Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving: A Handbook & A Call to Action. AC4D, 2012.
  • The N.C. Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service (DEACS). Recycle Right N.C. Factsheet, Alamance County, 2019.

Leave a Reply