Sustainability starts with design

Dr Ansgar Niehoff shows how smart products and sustainability can work together

Product design determines up to 70% of what makes a product suitable for eco-friendly reuse at the end of its life cycle. Product sustainability starts when the product is created and has to be thought through to disposal or retrieval. As a member of the UN Global Compact, REHAU is committed to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. The issue of a circular economy is right at the top of the agenda. This means so much more than simply using recyclable materials, as Dr Ansgar Niehoff, head of the technology platform Electronics into Polymers, explains:

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Ansgar, how long have you been dealing with the issue of sustainability – on a personal as well as a professional level?

Sustainability was a big part of life in my family home growing up – whether we were sorting our garbage, avoiding unnecessary car journeys, growing our own fruit and vegetables in the garden or buying long-life products. I believe we should use all resources carefully and in moderation. 

Sustainability was also part of my work at REHAU from day one. My very first project was on renewable energy. Subsequently, I was heavily involved in the upgrading of recycled materials, known as upcycling – a process in which recycled material mixtures are processed for use in higher-value products. I am currently laying the foundations to make future smart products as sustainable as possible.

At REHAU, you work in the research division that deals with ‘Electronics into Polymers’ – in short, making polymer products smarter. How do smart polymer products and sustainability work together?

At first glance, there’s actually a bit of a contradiction here. Smart polymer products are much more complex, as they are made of different materials. This makes recycling trickier and is a disadvantage when it comes to sustainability. But there’s a solution to this. 

I assume you’re referring to circular design here – what exactly is behind this principle?

It means creating products (design) that can be returned to the loop (circular). In this context, design means dealing closely with the actual problem you would like the product to solve. The motto: “fall in love with the problem, not with the solution”. This begins with an unbiased analysis of the problem, for instance, through extensive interviews. The solution is found in classic design thinking, where, like a designer, we look at things from the user’s point of view – more specifically, the point where people, the economy and technology overlap.

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Circular design is based on system thinking (see graphic) – which means taking social, cultural, political and environmental factors into account. If you have properly grasped the problem, you can gradually move towards a solution. The end result is a product that values the user and the environment, and offers the perfect solution to the problem. 

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What are the key factors in creating a closed loop following the principles of circular design?

We try to stay in the inner circles for as long as possible: repair, share, reuse, reprocess and recycle (see chart). The further out we go, the higher the energy consumption and the lower the value retention.

That means that circular design is all about designing products that use as few different materials as possible and are modular, repairable and easy to take apart.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges here?

Smart circular design products offer customers many benefits, combining high levels of functionality and sustainability. However, they take much more work to produce than conventional products – and the extra effort is reflected in higher costs. Constantly finding a balance between technical specifications and sustainability is also a challenge. 

How will you approach integrating circular design into more of your working processes at REHAU?

We have just begun a project with an agency that specializes in circular design. As part of this, we plan to develop a Circular Design Guide for REHAU and gradually apply these principles to all new products and product enhancements going forward.
 

What are the aims of the circular design project?

As a processor of thermoplastic polymers, REHAU has always been committed to sustainable principles, since unlike thermosets, thermoplastics can be melted down repeatedly and are therefore recyclable. Recycling has also been a strategic pillar at REHAU for decades. 

For the past three or four years, REHAU has been developing more and more smart products. That’s why we must ensure all employees involved in development and production know that we won't skimp on sustainability, even for smart products. Circular design is the key lever in bringing “smart” and “sustainable” together. 

The REHAU circular design principles we develop as part of the upcoming project should also be communicated in a transparent way. We would also like to showcase these sustainable approaches to our partners, customers and potential business partners.
 

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What would you personally like to see happen?

I would like smart REHAU products to be known for being innovative, reliable and sustainable. With a purchase, a customer is doing something good for themselves and the environment.

REHAU joins initiative 50 SUSTAINABILITY & CLIMATE LEADERS

Positive climate action across the world: The 50 Sustainability & Climate Leaders project is the response from the international business community which demonstrates the desire, the leadership, and the will to take effective action in the fight against climate change.

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