“I want a repairable toaster”

Make it circular or don’t make it at all

Sick and tired of buying products that are nearly impossible to repair? We need to stop designing things you can’t screw open

Hate something?
Then change it.

At Hogwarts, they know a thing or two about circularity. The magic spell ‘Reparo’ makes anything broken whole again. Unfortunately, things are a little different in our world.

When your three-month-old toaster unexpectedly stops working and you try in vain to open it to see what’s wrong, you won’t find a single screw anywhere in sight. The appliance is moulded plastic and hermetically sealed, just like your phone, your cheap electric toothbrush, and your printer. All are virtually impossible to repair, all non-circular.

What is often taken for granted by us as a daily inconvenience is, in fact, a life-sized obstacle to reducing our carbon footprint. Items that cannot be reused or repaired are an unacceptable waste of energy and raw materials. Together, they place a massive burden on our ecosystems. As much as 80% (!) of a product’s environmental impact is determined by decisions made at the design stage. That’s a big responsibility for the designer. And that’s where things often go completely wrong.

We need to do much more to curb our addiction to throwaway culture. And designers, with consumers and regulators on their side, hold the key to pushing producers toward a more circular society.

Hate something? Then change it.

For Dutch designer Bas van Abel, the exasperation of not being able to open his son’s broken Nintendo DS was the spark that led him to develop a range of modular smartphones under the name Fairphone.

“It made me really pissed to throw away something I knew I could still fix.”

For successful fashion designer Borre Akkersdijk, frustration with the
heavily polluting clothing industry – responsible for 10 percent of global CO2 emissions – was reason enough to stop producing Byborre‘s successful annual collection altogether. The company now focuses almost entirely on making responsible yarn and fabric.

Byborre share their processes, impact and textile usage

Make it circular, or don’t make it at all. Because for most things on the high street, there’s already too much supply, as Akkersdijk knows well. In Amsterdam alone, 14 million kilos of textiles get thrown away every year. An answer is urgently needed for the quick-to-break printer that is cheaper than the ink cartridges it uses, the flimsy 17-euro toaster on Amazon, or the covetable smartphones that need replacing after a single hiccup.

To meet our climate goals – the Netherlands wants a fully circular economy by 2050 – designers, consumers, and the government must work together and force producers to change. It’s time to trade in cheap end products for repairability and a responsible manufacturing process. This means prioritising carbon footprints over prices, and reusability over aesthetics.

In this shift towards a circular system, consumers need help, but they must also do something themselves. Refuse to buy a product that can’t be taken apart. Don’t scrape the bottom of the market for short-term savings, but look for stuff that is cheaper and less wasteful in the long term because its parts are reusable.

Governments could – and should – actually help consumers make these choices. Why aren’t there footprint labels on every consumer item, showing how it impacts the environment, like the mandatory energy labels we have for new houses? The government can and should enforce this on the influential consumer goods industry.

Making the switch to circular won’t be simple, because old production systems and business models are tough to crack. It would be naive to think anyone can single-handedly overthrow an entire production chain, but designers like Van Abel and Akkersdijk ensure that other makers also have to get moving. Quite simply, as a designer, refuse to design things that cannot be taken apart. Make it repairable, so everyone can take their broken toaster to the repair shop.

Designers get in the loop

But there is hope. Given that over 80% of product-related environmental impacts are determined in the design phase, designers are in an incredible position to redesign the way we live using circular design. Circular design gives us the tools to prevent the creation of waste and pollution right from the start, and build a liveable future for all. Creatives and designers often create out of frustration about how things work, or don’t!

The What Design Can Do Make it Circular campaign aims to get creatives to put their anger into action. We want designers to think about what frustrates them and encourage them to redesign a fairer, more sustainable world that works for people and planet. This realisation prompted a global video campaign with renowned design thinkers who weigh in on why it’s time to build a circular society.

“We should we all be thinking circular.”

Each video is a glimpse into what made each designer champion circular design.

“It shouldn’t be an option to be designed to be disposable.”

All thinkers agreed: ditch designing for throwaway culture and embrace a circular society that respects both people and nature.

“We are constantly producing loads of sh*t.”

What’s so good about this?

The world can be a pretty frustrating place to live in. Never before have humankind produced, consumed – or thrown away – so much stuff. Our phone breaks? We get a new one. We buy food? It’s covered in plastic packaging. It’s no wonder that 45% of all global emissions today come from the production of everyday goods and services. We need to face the problem head-on.

Intelletoaster header image by @hugh_kretschmer

Meet the writer

Richard van der Laken is a designer and founder of What Design Can Do, an Amsterdam-based international platform for the advancement of design as a tool for social change. It launched the Make it Circular Challenge to urge creatives worldwide to come up with innovative circular solutions to the climate crisis.

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